Chris Harman


Marxism and the Missiles

(October 1980)

First published in Socialist Review, 1980 : 9, 17 October–14 November 1980, pp. 17–22.
Copied with thanks from Chris Harman’s Back Pages.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This article appeared in Socialist Review 1980 : 9, October 1980. It is a critical analysis at the historian Edward Thompson theory of “exterminism”.

One of the major themes running through Socialist Review over the last nine months has been the drive towards a new Cold War. We have insisted that it is a prime duty of socialists to resist this, and we have attempted to provide the arguments they need.

Until recently, however, our assumption was that we would be very much on the defensive over the question. The media were putting out a deluge of Cold War propaganda. There seemed to be no wider movement of resistance from which we could get support.

Over the summer, however, things have begun to change. The anti-bomb movement has suddenly taken on a new lease of life. From many different parts of the country come reports of very large public meetings, and of sizeable demonstrations, leading up to in what looks like being a very big protest in London on 26 October.

At the heart of the revived movement has been the historian E.P. Thompson. In articles in The Guardian and the New Statesman, in the pamphlet Protest and Survive, and in scores of public meetings, he has polemicised brilliantly against the Cruise missile. He has not been alone in putting the arguments. But it has been Thompson more than anyone else who has brought the movement back to life. And all credit is due to him for doing so.

It has also been Thompson who has provided whatever analysis the new movement has of the drive towards mMissile madness and of a strategy for combating it.

It is here that we in Socialist Review (and the SWP generally) have to dissent from what Thompson says.

Thompson’s strategy is, quite simply, to arouse the largest possible numbers of people to protest at the decision to deploy the Cruise missiles:

‘We must generate an alternative logic, an opposition at every level of society. The opposition must be international and must win the support of multitudes. It must bring its influence to bear upon the rulers of the world.’ (Protest and Survive)

Who is to make up this opposition? The impression you get from reading Protest and Survive is that Thompson is looking essentially for the same sort of people who made up CND 20 years ago and who turned out in considerable numbers to the public meetings over the summer – the articulate middle classes, people with university degrees, or possibly studying for them.

‘As it happens the major bases (for the Cruise missiles) are to be placed in close proximity to the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and it seems to me that useful work can be done from these old bases of European civilisation. There will be work of research, of publication, and also work of conscience, all of which is very suitable for scholars... Oxford and Cambridge then are privileged toinitiate this campaign.’

But it can involve:

‘Any existing institution or even individual, universities and colleges – or groups within them – trade unionists, women’s organisations, members of professions, churches, practitioners of Esperanto or chess ...’

With these:

‘Before long we will be crossing frontiers ..., bursting open bureaucrats’ doors, making the telephone tappers spin in their hideaways ... and breaking up all the old stoney Stalinist reflexes of the East by forcing open dialogue and debate ...’

If this were all that Thompson were arguing, we would be tempted to make a few words of protest. Even on the basis of purely arithmetic calculation it seems a bit strange to give no more prominence to 12 million trade unionists than to the half a million members of professions, the two million churchgoers or the 45,000 university dons – particularly when all the emphasis is on the dons.

But Thompson does not end his argument there. Underlying his comments in Protest and Survive is a wide reaching attempt at analysis of the new Cold War dedicated to refuting the notion that ‘the bomb is a class issue’. This is most openly argued by him in a recent issue of New Left Review.

The burden of Thompson’s analysis is that society East and West has reached a new and terrifying stage in its development – Exterminism.

‘Exterminism designates those characteristics of a society which thrust it in the direction whose outcome must be the extermination of millions ...’

It results from ‘the accumulation and perfection of the means of extermination and the structuring of whole societies so that these will be directed towards that end,’

The factors which gave rise to ‘exterminism’ may once have been imperialist interests or the pursuit of profit by military-industrial complexes. But the methods used initially by ruling classes in the rational pursuit of their interests have taken on an irrational life of their own and are no longer reducible to their original courses.

‘What originated as reaction becomes direction. What is justified by rational self-interest by one power or the other becomes in the collision of the two irrational. We are confronted with the accumulated logic of process.’

To treat this outcome as the product of ‘rational’ choices by ruling classes is to impose a consequential rationality upon an ‘irrational’ object.

Exterminism has to be challenged by the presentation of an ‘alternative’ logic, by:

‘Initiating a counter logic, a thrust of process leading towards the dissolution of both blocs, the demystification of exterminism’s ideological mythology.’

It is this which has to be achieved by the alliance of ‘churches, Eurocommunists, Labourites, East European dissidents (and not only “dissidents”) ... trade unionists, ecologists ...’ As ‘the blocs’ swing ‘off their collision course’, ‘the armourers and the police will lose their authority.’

Any talk of the bomb as a ‘class issue’ makes these tasks more difficult. ‘Class struggle continues in many forms across the globe. But exterminism itself is not a “class issue”: it is a human issue.’

‘Revolutionary posturing’, Thompson insists, can only ‘carry division into the necessary alliance of human resistance – indeed, worse than that, it can inflame exterminist ideology.’ ‘It should go without saying that exterminism can only be confronted by the broadest popular alliance, that is, by every affirmative resource in our culture.’

The analysis

Is ‘exterminism’ something so entirely new in its irrationality?

The picture Thompson paints of rival blocs, each ruled by elites imprisoned by the pressures of the military competition between them is correct. But it is by no means something outside the scope of old Marxist methods of class analysis.

Back in 1844 when Marx began to develop his ideas, he took over the notion of ‘alienation’ from the philosophers Hegel and Feuerbach. He observed that in capitalist society the activity of people on the world becomes something separated from them, takes on a life of its own and comes to dominate them.

‘The object which labour produces confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer ... The more the worker spends himself, the more powerful the alien world becomes which he creates over against himself ... The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to himself but to his object.’

But for the young Marx it was not only the worker who became imprisoned in this ‘alien’ world beyond his or her control. So did the capitalist: he was alienated as well, even though he was ‘happy in his alienation’.

The point of Marx’s later work – especially Capital, was precisely to work out the way in which ‘objective laws’ came into existence that controlled this world of ‘alienated labour’. Marx showed how the ability of the capitalist to extract surplus value from the workers at the point of production put a continual constraint on both the worker and the capitalist. The harder the worker works, the more wealth he creates for the capitalist. This wealth can then be used to expand the productive forces at the disposal of the capitalist, to employ more workers and to create still more wealth for capital. The very labour of the worker has created the chains (even if the worker is well paid and they are ‘golden chains’) which tie him or her to endless production.

But the capitalist too is a prisoner. The very fact that exploitation and accumulation is possible for one capitalist makes it obligatory on all capitalists. Any capitalist who does not exploit in order to accumulate and accumulate in order to exploit will be driven out of business.

Yet, Marx went on to argue, the capitalist is doomed by the very world of alienated labour in which he thrives. The compulsion to endless accumulation regardless of the consequences leads, in the short term, to repeated economic crises in which many capitalists go bankrupt. And in the long term it drives the whole capitalist system to economic stagnation, political chaos and social turmoil which in the end dooms the capitalist class, facing it either with socialist revolution or ‘the mutual destruction of the contending classes’.

This did not mean that capitalists individually or as a class could be made to see sense and behave differently by reading Capital. Any capitalist who tried to do so would be driven out of business by the others. And so the ruling class necessarily identified the continuation of society as they knew it, of what they saw as ‘civilisation’, with enthusiastic imposition of measures that could only end by destroying that society. Only the violence of an insurgent working class could make them step aside and allow the reorganisation of society on a rational basis.

Marx’s analysis of the effects of ‘peaceful’ competition for markets might seem a far cry from the world of Cruise and Pershing. But in 1915 and 1916 the analysis was expanded to explain the bitter, bloody and apparently pointless war which had the great nations of Europe locked in combat, rapidly threatening to tear all of them apart.

Imperialism and ‘Exterminism’

There was already one attempt at explanation of the war – expounded chiefly by the German socialist, Karl Kautsky – that went something like this:

The war was not at all in the interests of the great majority of capitalists on either side. They had been conned into believing by a minority of arms manufacturers that only through war could they defend their capitalist interests in the colonies. But in reality it would be the easiest thing in the world for the different capitalist powers to meet together and agree jointly to exploit the colonies. And so the war could be ended merely by bringing pressure to bear on capitalists to behave differently (or, as Thompson might have put it, to pursue ‘an alternative logic’).

This account of the war was challenged by the Bolshevik theorists, Bukharin and Lenin. Some aspects of Lenin’s analysis of imperialism may not have stood the test of time. But in it, and even more so in Bukarin’s Imperialism are accounts of the ‘logic’ that produced World War One. And these can still throw much light on ‘exterminism’ today.

Lenin and Bukharin insisted that the development of capitalism leads to military competition complementing and even taking over from peaceful competition for markets.

For, as capitalism grows older two apparently contradictory things happen. On the one hand, within each country there is a concentration of economic power into fewer and fewer giant firms, increasingly integrated into state. Yet at the same time, the growing scale of production means it can no longer be contained within the narrow boundaries within which existing states operate.

The only way the contradiction can be resolved is if the national state can extend its powers beyond these boundaries within which existing states operate.

The only way the contradiction can be resolved is if the national state can extend its powers beyond these boundaries. It has to build up its armies, its navies, its airforces, its weaponry, so as to be able to safeguard markets, production facilities and raw material resources that exist abroad. This means annexing some territories, establishing spheres of influence over others, forcibly pressurising the rulers of the rest to safeguard its interests.

‘The struggle between state capitalist trusts is decided in the first place by the relation between their military forces, for the military power of the country is the last resort of the struggling “national” groups of capitalists,’ wrote Bukharin in 1916.

‘The capitalists partition the world, not out of personal malice, but because the degree of concentration which has been reached forces them to adopt this method in order to get profits,’ Lenin insisted a year later. But any partition could only be agreed on by all of them for a short period of time, since as some of them grew economically more quickly than others the military balance between the powers would shift and the stronger ones would demand a larger share of the world.

Under such circumstances, periods of peace ‘inevitably can only be “breathing spells” between wars. Peaceful alliances prepare the way for wars, and in their turn grow out of wars.’

Bukharin spelt the argument out again in 1921 in his Economics of the Transformation Period.

‘The anarchy of world capitalism – the opposition between social world labour and “national” state appropriation – expresses itself in the collision of the state organisations and in capitalist wars ...

‘War is nothing other than the method of competition at a specific level of development...The method of competition between state capitalist trusts...’

Just as economic competition has a logic of its own, so Lenin and Bukharin argued the military competition does. Lenin observed that imperialism was characterised not just by the seizure of areas necessary to the national economy but areas which might strengthen the rural power if it possessed them and areas of importance from the point of view of military strategy. And Bukharin noted that the militarist structure of the state arose from the ‘economic base’, but like every "superstructure" reacted back on the base and moulded it in a certain direction.’

The point of this discussion of Marx, Lenin and Bukharin is not to show that Thompson has infringed some ‘orthodoxy’. It is rather to emphasise that that he sees as completely new developments, right outside the perspectives of classic Marxism, are exactly the sorts of things that classic Marxism was trying to explain. Competition between manufactured products gave rise to competition between those fairly nasty classes of manufactured objects, Dreadnoughts, machine guns and poisonous gases and that in turn gave rise to competition between the most horrendous of manufactured objects, intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs. The level of alienation is raised to an incredible degree; the physical future of all members of all classes is put at risk. But all on the basis of the ‘world of alienated labour’, the capitalist relations of production.

The Logic of the Cold War

Let’s look briefly at what motivates the major protagonists of the Cold War.

The facts about the expansion of the interests of US capitalism beyond its national boundaries are well known: it controls about half the productive wealth of the world; firms like Ford or General Motors or the oil giants operate productive facilities in scores of countries; US investments overseas produce more output than any single country apart from the US itself and the USSR; the US banks receive the lion’s share of the 88 bn dollars a year which developing countries have to pay out on debt servicing each year. The point has been reached where the viability of almost all of the major US industrial corporations and banks depends upon maintaining intact integrated complexes of components operations throughout the ‘free world’: the great banks could be brought to their knees if one of the great debtor nations defaulted, even Ford would have gone bankrupt in the last couple of years but for its overseas operations.

Under such circumstances the rulers of the US see the frontiers of their vital interests as much wider than the frontiers of the US itself. They believe that they have to maintain the most powerful armed forces in the world so as to be able to ward off threats to these interests, whether from genuine national liberation movements, from Russian moves, or from the other Western capitalisms taking measures that would damage the functioning of the US multinationals and banks (for instance, through protectionist measures).

This basic military drive is reinforced by subordinate factors: by the way in which over 30 years the cost of maintaining this huge military apparatus has been partially offset by its effect of stabilising the civilian economy and lessening the severity of economic crises; and by the way in which key firms and powerful bureaucratic sectors within the armed forces and the Pentagon gain as against other parts of the ruling class from the scale of the arms effort.

But the US does not operate as the only force in world affairs. Thompson quite rightly dismisses those who would see US imperialism as the only cause of missile madness. But he does not comprehend how Russia has developed an imperialist drive of its own. And so he can conclude imperialism is not the cause of the arms race.

Yet if we look closely at the way in which Russian society has developed since the late 1920s it is easy to see how an imperialist drive has developed symmetrical to that of the Western powers. When the group around Stalin took complete control of Russia, they set themselves the task of defending that control by developing a military apparatus as powerful as that of any potential foe. But that was only possible on the basis of imitating in Russia much of the basis of the Western military potential – building up heavy industry through squeezing the living standards of workers and peasants arid, ploughing the excess value so obtained into accumulation. But once such methods were adopted, it was logical to copy the West in other ways as well – to reach out beyond the USSR’s borders for further resources for accumulation. Hence the division of Poland with Hitler in 1939, the division of the whole of Europe with Churchill and Roosevelt in 1944–45, the move into Afghanistan last December.

Accumulation in order to match the arms potential of a rival is an endless process. Every success in expanding the industrial base or armaments only spurs the rival to do the same. The arms budget has to be increased in order to hold together a ramshackle empire already groaning under the consequences (the shortages of food and consumer goods) of the existing arms burden.

Yet to relax, to let the arms programme slow down, is to risk being humiliated by the opponent at one or other point of confrontation, and to see allies switch sides, clients regain their independence, semi-colonies rebel.

And so the mere possibility that the opponent might develop some new form of weaponry compels one to do the same. Just as in economic competition as seen by Marx, the accumulation of means of production is necessary, regardless of the individual desires of capitalists, so in military competition, accumulation of arms – and the economic potential to make them – is necessary, even if both sides can see that ultimately it is going to destroy them. But, of course, the individual desires of capitalists do come to be identified with accumulation – the system provides the appropriate psychological and ideological mechanisms to keep itself functioning. The bureaucracies of the state and industry which participate in the accumulation of arms become so structured that the individuals in them see that as a good thing in itself. In both the Pentagon and in the great firm that is USSR Ltd powerfully placed bureaucrats see their own career prospects as identified in further enlarging the military-industrial structure.

The continual expansion of military might feeds back into each protagonist, just as ‘pure economic competition’ would, forcing each ruling class to tighten its grip over subordinate classes,forcing each to broaden still further the base of its arms potential by spreading still more beyond its borders, creating still more interests in each society intimately bound up with the pursuit of further military expansion, even to the point where the demand of the military on resources pushes society as a whole into the deepest instability.

Cold War and Crisis

This leads to a final point of analysis where we part company with Thompson. His account of the new Cold War cut it right off from an important element determining its course – the existence or otherwise of economic crisis.

The point can be put like this. Until the mid-1940s it seemed that the Western imperialisms could not coexist on the face of the earth without continual recourse to war with each other. But the antagonisms that had produced the First and Second World Wars were soon forgotten in the boom conditions of the 1950s and 1960s. The whole world economy was expanding, and the different powers could share in the prosperity without stepping on each other’s toes.

As between the various Western powers and Russia things were more difficult. Although the division of Europe was agreed in 1944–45 and adhered to, with respect to the rest of the world there were problems. It was by no means clear what the real balance of forces was because of the number of unknown factors (the effects of the colonial revolution, the Chinese revolution, the then higher growth rate of the USSR, etc.). However, by the early 1960s, something like a stable balance of forces seemed to exist. The basis was laid for ‘détente’.

One of the things that has reactivated the old antagonisms has been the effect of economic crisis in both ‘camps’. Both great powers have been faced with an increased need to deploy resources outside their own national frontiers at the same time as there has been a destabilisation of the foreign countries in which these resources are located.

In the case of the West there has been the massive growth of the international credit system (Eurodollars and Petrodollars) and the increased pressure to internationalisation of production (the ‘world car’, for example). But this has been accompanied by increased tensions among the advanced powers (the continual pressures for import controls against each other’s goods, the attempts of Germany and France to play an independent role in international affairs) and by the creation of whole zones of instability in the rest of the world (especially the Middle East, but also Central America and the Caribbean).

In the case of the Eastern bloc the Russians have found the Chinese openly aligned with the West, have lost Egypt to the US camp, see Iraq changing sides, are having difficulties consolidating their hold on Afghanistan and fear new rumblings in Eastern Europe – all at a time when they are more dependent than ever before on their economic ties with the West and the Third World.

Both sides find themselves with economic problems that create dissent among allies, clients and semi-colonies. Both fear the other will exploit these to its own advantage. And so both attempt to increase the n umber of their warheads, to raise the accuracy of their missiles, to prepare to threaten the other with ‘limited’ nuclear war if it intervenes in the wrong ‘sphere of influence’.

Theory and Practice

The analysis of the world put forward above does not contradict Thompson completely. On many points there is concurrence. But the practical conclusions that follow are very different.

For Thompson the struggle against the missiles is the struggle, the resolution of which must be achieved before we can deal with other issues (with taking on the ‘armourers and the gaolers’). For us it is a struggle that intersects with many other struggles over many other issues.

This is fantastically important. CND last time round was very successful in mobilising numbers of people. But in the end it failed. It did not get rid of the bomb and most of the activists moved on to other things: Thompson himself, for example, stopped campaigning and started writing (very good) history.

Failure was not the result of lack of effort. It was because, essentially, CND did not gather behind it a social force that could break the grip of the bomb makers. And that was because it was cut off from the everyday preoccupations of the great majority of people. Trade union leaders like Frank Cousins of the TGWU could cast bloc votes for CND. A Labour Party conference could even pass a resolution against the bomb. But neither enough TGWU members nor sufficient Labour Party supporters cared about the issue to enforce implementation of the resolution or blacking of nuclear bases. When, later, we sat down in the streets in an effort to get our way through direct action, we soon learnt it was powerless, because we, by ourselves, were not a social force.

The impotence of CND was something that had been experienced by antiwar movements before.

Take, for example, the experience of the First World War. Ultimately that war ended because first the Russian and then the German workers and soldiers would endure it no more. But for long years before that the anti-war movement was isolated, on the margins of society, unable to influence events. One of the most important worker leaders of the German revolution, Richard Müller, later explained why. He tells how the most virulent opponents of the war (organised in the Internationale grouping) remained cut off from the workers in the big Berlin factories. These workers were fairly hostile to the war, but it seemed something remote from them until it led to direct attacks on their living standards and their trade union rights.

To build up a movement in the factories capable of action took four years of slow, relentless work by Müller and his comrades. By contrast the antiwar socialists outside the factories called repeatedly for demonstrative actions which could only appeal to small ‘vanguard groups’ of workers, easily dealt with by the military and the police’. There had to be a unification of the anti-war sentiment and the struggle over material conditions before there could develop a force powerful enough to crack the regime and the war.

One of the problems for CND in the late 1950s and early 1960s was that the material conditions were not such as to make possible such a unification of the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’. Most workers could still look forward to rising real living standards year after year, unemployment was less than two per cent, the welfare state was still expanding.

Today things are different, precisely because the new surge of nuclear missiles is linked with the trend towards international crisis. The increase in arms spending takes place at the same time as the cuts in schools, hospitals and housing; the militarisation of society takes place as workers engaged in traditionally ‘peaceful’ trade union practices find themselves up against the forces of the state; the growth of the new anti-bomb movement takes place as the retiring head of the Supplementary Benefits Commission warns of the ‘danger’ of the unemployed rioting in the streets.

Yet Thompson virtually ignores all this. For him the way forward is to repeat the movement the last time round, with bigger numbers of essentially the same sorts of people. It is a recipe for unnecessary failure.

Thompson is not clear on another thing of immense importance – whether we are going to have to seize the weapons of destruction from the hands of our rulers, or whether all we have to do is peacefully persuade them of the folly of their ways. At times his tone is one of confrontation. But at others it seems we only have to point to an ‘alternative logic’.

This is not surprising, since the very sort of people he sees as constituting the core of the movement would run a hundred miles at the very thought of real confrontation. Just look at his proposed allies. ‘The churches’ – are the archbishops and cardinals en masse going to lead an assault on the missile bases? ‘The Eurocommunists’ – when, as Edward Thompson well knows, the Italian Communist Party leaders have argued against Italy leaving NATO, the Spanish Communists do not argue for an ending of Spain’s alliance with the US, least that should ‘destabilise’ the international situation, and the French Communist Party is the most enthusiastic supporter of the French nuclear Force de Frappe. The ‘Labourites’, if by this Thompson means the leading Labour lefts, then it should be remembered that it was only two years ago that their star was threatening the use of troops to break a strike at Windscale. Even the category of ‘trade unionists’ is ambiguous: does it mean those at the base, or those leaders who spend much of their time trying to stop strikes in places like the naval dockyard where the nuclear submarines are fitted out?

Thompson has drawn up a list of people who might – on occasions – put their names to anti-missile petitions. He has not located a coherent force that will fight to dismantle the missiles, regardless of the consequences.

The deployment of nuclear warheads is integral to the society in which we live, capitalism. The more people arc enmeshed in the higher structures ‘ that society, the more they resist any thitlg w’hi’ch threatens to overturn that society – even if such an overturn is necessary to stop it leading humanity to annihilation. They might sign letters to The Times; they will run in fear of riot. They may clap politely at a public meeting; they will shudder at the thought of social upheaval. They may distribute the odd leaflet; they will hide if the leaflet leads to real conflict.

This is not an argument for putting up a sign at anti-nuclear meetings: ‘Workers Only’. It is an argument for developing strategies aimed at sections of society who are not so tied to existing structures as those who have pride of place in Thompson’s vision. The missiles do threaten the future of the individual members of all classes. But the question is: how many of them can be won to a strategy not just of token opposition, but of active struggle?

And here it has to be recognised that the stockbroker who wants to fight the bomb has to look to a movement that will destroy his profits, the priest to a break with his own church, the Eurocommunist to a fight against party leaders who tolerate the weaponry of destruction, the Labourite to a battle with left figures who oppose bombs in opposition only to preside over their construction when in office.

In this sense, the bomb is a class issue. There are those whose class interests lead them to accept the threat to humanity (including themselves). And there are those whose class interests point in the opposite direction, who even if they have been conned into accepting the bomb can find themselves bitterly fighting the bomb makers over other issues. A really successful movement can win individuals from the first group. But only if it makes them break with that group to build among the second. Thompson with his near-mystical incantation of terms like ‘exterminism’ and his grandiose verbiage about ‘broad movements’ obscures this essential fact.

Bolshevism in the Age of the Bomb

Politics is not just about theoretical analysis or even strategy. It is also about getting things done, about the organisational forms that can turn theory into practice. What should these be in the era of missile madness?

For Thompson – and no doubt for many other people in the new movement – the sheer horror of what the missiles can do means dropping the traditional forms of organisation adopted by Marxists, especially the notion of a disciplined revolutionary workers’ party. All that is needed, it is argued, is the broadest possible alliance. But before anyone goes along with Thompson on this they should reflect on one thing: it was precisely the way in which capitalism produced an earlier version of militaristic horror (that of trench warfare and poisonous gas) that led the most consistently anti-war socialists to adopt a precise organisational form,that to be found in the notion of the ‘Bolshevik Party’.

The idea of such a party certainly was not adopted because of any obsession with orthodoxy. When first broached it was a most unorthodox innovation. People found out the hard way it was what they needed as they struggled against what was (at that point) the most horrendous war in human history.

A Gramsci, a Big Bill Heywood, an Eugen Leviné, an Alfred Rosmer, a John MacLean a John Read, even, at the very end, a Rosa Luxemburg, came to see that the only way to cope with capitalism in the era of world wars was to build a party of the sort that had been pioneered in the struggle against Czarist despotism in Russia. Why did they come to this conclusion?

Until 1914 opposition to the different aspects of capitalist society tended to flow into different channels. There was a trade unionism that was concerned chiefly (when it even did that) with the wage rates and working conditions of workers with particular skills. There was a ‘political’ socialism that only concerned itself with making propaganda and collecting votes. There was a pacifism that only made ineffectual protests against participation in wars. There was a feminism which restricted itself to fighting the legal disabilities facing women.

The war threw each and everyone of these currents into disarray. Trade unionists turned against one another as the state offered privileges to those union leaders who would support its war effort and prison sentences to those militants who resisted. The ‘political’ socialists had the choice of acting as a left front for militarism or continuing in the most difficult conditions with propagandism that seemed ineffectual against searing bullets and burning flesh. The pacifists were either converted to instant patriotism, or made individual protests which eased consciences but could not stop the carnage. The feminists split between those who saw ‘equality’ as meaning an equal right to suffer in the trenches, and those asserted that it meant an equal part in the fight to turn the guns against the generals.

What was different about the party that had grown up around Lenin in Russia was that it showed that impotence could be overcome by linking the different struggles. Trade unionism which cut itself off from the struggle against other aspects of capitalism (militarism, despotism, discrimination against minorities and women) left intact a system that would not only recoup any concessions it made over living standards but which would threaten life itself: this was the import of Lenin’s famous attacks upon ‘economism’. Socialism which put its faith in pamphlets and ballot boxes alone talked about a future that was already being destroyed in the present. Pacifism which preached peace without locating a force that could seize from the militarists control of the means of waging war merely created the illusion that the blood pouring from capitalism’s every pore was an accident.

By contrast a socialism that was rooted in the day-to-day struggles in the factories was wrestling for control of the future in the here and now; an opposition to the war that based itself on strikes over living standards, working conditions and trade union rights did not merely pray for an end to bloodshed, but made it more difficult for the Haigs and the Hindenbergs to keep the bloodletting going.

This did not mean barring from the factory struggles those who did not believe in revolution, or from the antiwar demonstrations those who accepted private property. But it did mean creating a party which would educate, agitate, organise within each of these wider movements for the connections to be made, for the strikes against food shortages to become strikes against the militarists, for the demonstrations against the war to be demonstrations against the system that created the war.

The party had to be ‘of a new sort’. No longer concerned just with propaganda or vote catching. No longer delegating to ‘trade unionists’ alone responsibility for agitation in the factory. But itself obsessed with action, above all action in the workplaces, and structured in such a way as to make action effective.

The question of building such parties was absolutely central because of the way ‘peaceful’ capitalist competition for markets had given way to war and the preparation for war. Ruling classes who hurled millions of armed men against each other would not recoil from murdering and imprisoning socialists who tried to stand in their path: the fates of Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Leviné, Joe Hill, Connolly, Gramsci, MacLean bear witness to that. Parties were needed that could operate as peaceful protest became civil war, as legality gave way to illegality. Those who had already presided over 20 million deaths were not going to be stopped unless for every bullet they fired bullets were fired back from a thousand factories. And that had to be organised.

It would be utter folly to believe that it needs a lesser social force, a lower level of organisation, to deal with those who are prepared to contemplate the destruction of humanity than those who ‘merely’ sent a generation of young men to die in the trenches.

Last updated on 21 September 2019