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Joel Geier

Marxism and War

(Summer 1999)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 8, Summer 1999.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist. I do not belong to the regular army of the plutocracy, but to the irregular army of the people. I refuse to obey any command to fight from the ruling class ... I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the world-wide war of the social revolution. In that war I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary ...
– Eugene V. Debs [1]

FROM THE First World War to Vietnam, the United States was almost always fighting a war or preparing for war. In those 60 years, no generation escaped this horror. The political questions confronting the socialist movement typically were linked to imperialism and war. The International Socialist tendency has always been distinguished by its uncompromising opposition to imperialist war.

The last 25 years have been dramatically different from the period between 1914 and 1975. The defeat in Vietnam jolted U.S. power and capitalist self-confidence. Ruling-class ambitions were restrained by the fear that the American working class would not always act as passive cannon fodder. The “Vietnam syndrome” hinges on ruling-class anxiety that war and the use of ground troops might unleash struggle at home and rebellion in the army.

For the last quarter century, U.S. policy has been restricted to limited military interventions – in Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, among others – with only one serious war. That war, against Iraq in 1990–91, was fought over control of Persian Gulf oil. The actual military campaign in the Gulf was such an unequal contest that the fighting was short. The imperialist peace, however, continues that war by other means: through sanctions and periodic bombings. The politics of the war have changed – Saddam Hussein is not a threat to U.S. hegemony in the Gulf. War policy is directed against the Iraqi civilian population, who are used as hostages for “holding Saddam’s regime in a box,” and as a barbaric demonstration by U.S. imperialism that anyone who stands in its way faces total destruction.

The post-Vietnam period, the victories in the Cold War and the Gulf War shaped the last generation’s political assumptions about war. Those assumptions, however illusory, were that wars are minor, short, episodic interruptions of peace, and that no one could seriously challenge the military power of the U.S. All varieties of reformists internationally have concluded that U.S. power must be accepted and worked with as the only realistic force capable of solving international problems. The middle-class left adapted to U.S. imperialism. No longer looking for solutions from below, they abandoned the anti-imperialism of the Vietnam era and now look above to “really existing” power: to American capitalism. They echoed and applauded the absurd claims of the capitalist class to unselfish neutrality, benevolence and humanitarianism as the motive force behind intervention in Somalia, Haiti, Iraq or Bosnia.

The war in Yugoslavia is forcing the reassessment of some assumptions about the shape of the post-Cold War order. In the last few months, the world has become a much more dangerous place as stability has been undermined in the Balkans, throughout Europe and in U.S. relations with Russia and China. Internationally, ruling classes are re-examining their military options and debating a renewed arms race.

Thus, it is long overdue for a new generation to examine the authentic anti-imperialist tradition, the revolutionary Marxist approach to war. We have to recapture the theoretical heritage of the 1914–75 era to prepare ourselves for a period that will not be like the last quarter century. Political life will be sharper, more intense and more combative as it deals with life and death questions of imperialist rivalry, military and diplomatic tensions and possible new wars.

Marxism and pacifism

In his classic pamphlet, Socialism and War, Lenin distinguished between the Marxist and pacifist oppositions to war:

Socialists have always condemned wars between nations as barbarous and brutal. Our attitude towards war is fundamentally different from that of the bourgeois pacifists ... 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 slaveholders, by serfs against landowners, and by wage workers against the bourgeoisie, as fully legitimate, progressive and necessary. We Marxists differ from pacifists ... in that we deem it necessary to study each war historically (from the standpoint of Marx’s dialectical materialism) and separately. There have been in the past numerous wars which, despite all the horrors, atrocities, distress and suffering that inevitably accompany all wars, were progressive, i.e., benefited the development of mankind. [2]

Marxism rejects an absolute position on war. We examine each war concretely and separately, locating each in its distinct historical context. We disagree with pacifists that all war is bad, immoral and harmful to those who engage in it. Those are ahistorical, moralistic dogmas divorced from material reality. Indeed, from our class viewpoint, rejecting necessary or liberating violence is inherently immoral. A gun used in war by, let us say, a Warsaw Ghetto fighter aimed at a German soldier is an instrument of liberation. The same gun in the hands of a German soldier aimed at a Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto is an instrument of Nazi torture and death. An abstract disgust with guns and violence cannot see this truth – only politics and class morality can.

We don’t equate the violence of the oppressor with the violence of the oppressed. We don’t agree with pacifists that the violence of oppressed people or workers’ revolution debases the human spirit by practicing hatred, and that it should be replaced by a strategy of winning over enemies through non-violent reconciliation, Christian love or moral witness. Pacifists preach peaceful reconciliation of differences between oppressor and oppressed – “non-violent conflict resolution” – not the class hostility and hatred workers should feel for their exploiters. Socialists reject the idea that there should be harmony and brotherhood in a world based on class inequality in wealth, power and privilege.

Ruling classes have never in all of recorded human history paid the slightest attention to pacifist or moral pleadings to peacefully give up their wealth and power. Pacifists consequently direct their appeals to the oppressed, which disarms and weakens successful resistance and contributes to the maintenance of the system which causes war.

War is politics by forcible means

The Marxist approach to supporting or opposing a particular war draws heavily on the early nineteenth century Prussian writer and soldier, Carl von Clausewitz, arguably the greatest theoretician and strategist of war. [3] Clausewitz’s starting point was the famous proposition that “war is politics continued by other, violent means.” This, Lenin states, “was always the standpoint of Marx and Engels, who regarded any war as the continuation of the politics of the powers concerned – and the various classes within these countries – in a definite period.” [4] Lenin later expanded on that idea, saying that we have to look at “the class character of war: what caused that war, what classes are waging it, and what historical and historical-economic conditions gave rise to it ... “ [5]

As socialists, we attempt to analyze all of the political aspects of a war: the real policies (not the stated ones) of which the war is a continuation, and the policies of the classes waging the war. To fully understand the politics of the war, we have to examine all of the belligerent powers, not just one. If we agree with the politics that have led to the war, then we continue to support the struggle for those politics, even when they are continued through violent means, through war. Conversely, if we are political opponents of those policies, of the policies of the ruling classes and governments involved, we don’t put aside our political opposition when the struggle is continued by other, violent means. We remain opponents of the politics that led to the war, and therefore of the war itself.

This key unlocks the mystification that surrounds war. It makes plain the method that we use to decide which wars we consider just, progressive and worthy of support, and which we consider reactionary, unjust and not worthy of support. We are for wars we can support politically – we are in favor wars of national liberation, wars for democracy, and revolutions and civil wars of the working class and oppressed. We oppose those wars whose politics we reject: imperialist wars, wars of racist nationalism and wars for the wealth, power and privileges of the ruling classes. It is our politics, political analysis of real events and political judgment on the dynamics of the forces and events propelling any war, placed in their historical, economic and class context, that determine our position on each, separate war.

Two eras of war

Marx and Engels did not abstain on the question of war. They took definite sides on particular wars using the criteria of victory or defeat for which of the belligerent camps most represented historical progress. That approach was appropriate to the era of progressive national wars and bourgeois revolutions when socialism was not yet a historic possibility. In the period from the American Revolution of 1776 until the Paris Commune of 1871, the bourgeoisie could still play a progressive role. Bourgeois revolutions overturned feudal relations, broke up the landed estates, separated church and state and established democratic republics. The best example of a war of this type was the French Revolution. The spread of the French Revolution challenged feudalism throughout Europe. Had the revolution not spread to the rest of Europe, it would have been strangled by aristocratic counter-revolution from abroad. The radical left of the time were aggressive proponents of revolutionary warfare. Other progressive, bourgeois wars of this period included the wars of German and Italian unification, which ended the division of those countries into feudal mini-states and created unified national states and markets.

Another type of progressive war of that period was civil war to end the abomination of slavery. The Haitian Revolution resulted in a long period of brutal warfare for human freedom. Similarly, the American Civil War between Northern capitalism, in alliance with the free Blacks of the North and the slaves of the South, against the Southern Confederacy of plantation slave owners was a war for human liberation as well as for capitalist progress. It was one of the last acts, anywhere in the world, of the bourgeoisie as a revolutionary class.

To dismiss these events as limited because they were bourgeois is ahistorical. Compared to past conditions they were progressive historical developments. They created industrial capitalism whose means of production and proletariat are the preconditions for socialism. Marx and Engels decided their positions on the wars of that era based on which side’s victory was a victory for historical progress, and which side represented the future interests of the working class.

This era of progressive national wars ended when the Paris Commune was crushed in 1871. Capitalism, victorious in the West against feudalism, now confronted the first working-class socialist revolution. The bourgeoisie was no longer a revolutionary class, but had become a fetter on economic and historical development, a counter-revolutionary force. The working class was now a revolutionary threat to capital, and no capitalist class was a lesser evil; none played a more progressive role, or represented working-class interests. The working class was now capable of presenting its own independent class alternative: socialism.


Within a few decades, the rise of monopolies, trusts and finance capital laid the basis for a new stage of world capitalism, imperialism and a different era of warfare: imperialist war. The twentieth century is the era of imperialist war. By the end of the nineteenth century, capitalism broke out of the restricted limits of national economy. Competition became global – a scramble for markets, strategic raw materials, cheap labor supplies, investment outlets and colonial annexations. This distinctive phase of capitalism – imperialism – has remained the life-and-death economic imperative of the system up to the present. The major distinctive change from early imperialism to current globalism is that neocolonial relations have largely superceded territorial colonies as the instrument for economic control.

Imperialism did not introduce an era of uninterrupted peaceful progress and prosperity as its apologists have proclaimed. A world economy based on national capitals raised the anarchy of production to a world scale – with the added instability of no state power to coordinate economic, monetary or fiscal policy, or to restrain and discipline sections of the capitalist class. The unrestrained competition of concentrated national capitals pulls apart the world economic equilibrium in periodic great disruptions. Each national capital looks to its own state’s power for protection in anarchic global competition, demanding military and diplomatic might to back up economic competition. This dynamic has produced a century of constant warfare with an extraordinary scale of destruction. The world has not had a year without war in this century.

The character of modern imperialist wars defines the reactionary nature of contemporary capitalism, and its overripeness for socialist transformation. Under imperialism, the immense accumulation of wealth and the technological and scientific advances of humanity, rather than serving human needs, have become the means to create surreal weapons of mass destruction. As the mouthpiece of finance capital, the Wall Street Journal recently commented thus on the financing of the war with Serbia: “We’d rather see the money go to buy bombs that might save lives than be used to expand the welfare state.” [6]

These bombs and other “lifesaving” devices of capitalism illuminate the reactionary traits of imperialist war: its propensity for historically unprecedented mass slaughter (25 million dead in the First World War; 55 million dead in the Second World War) and the direction of this carnage at civilians. Prior to the First World War, 10 percent of the victims were typically civilian casualties. In both World Wars and Vietnam, the majority of those killed were civilians. In NATO’s war with Serbia, 80-90 percent of those reported killed in the press are Serbian and Albanian civilians (in capitalist-speak, “collateral damage”). These facts are the most damning indictment that this social system is a form of modern barbarism.

Imperialist wars do not advance human progress, Lenin observed, but are wars between modern robbers for booty: ruling classes fight over who is going to steal what riches and who will extend their exploitation to some other people. In these predatory wars by ruling classes for wealth and profit, there is no side among imperialists to choose from, no lesser evil which represents historic progress or working-class interests.

Some imperialists complain that they have been denied their fair share. The Nazis excused their imperialism based on Germany’s need for lebensraum, living space, which as a “have not” nation it was denied by the “plutocratic nations,” particularly Britain. Mussolini’s Italy even claimed to be a “proletarian nation” because its imperialism was poor compared to the bigger powers, which it called “bourgeois nations.”

There is little choice between small robbers and big robbers, poor robbers and rich robbers, old robbers and rising new robbers, aggressive robbers and status quo robbers. We are against all robbers. We oppose all imperialist wars as reactionary wars for conquest and oppression. They are wars which only serve ruling-class interests of extending their wealth, power and privilege by allowing the exploitation not only of their own working class, but of foreign ones as well. The apologists for one side always explain the imperialist drives, ambitions, conquests, annexations, exploitations and crimes of their enemy camp; but they remain silent accomplices for the crimes of their own ruling class, whose imperialism mysteriously evaporates into democratic, antifascist or other lofty motives.

In the progressive phase of capitalism, the ruling class could identify its interest with that of the nation. Under imperialism, the difficulty is to convince ordinary people that capitalist interests are also national interests. No imperialist army marches off with the slogans Higher Profits or Capitalist Conquest or Oil on its banners. Capitalism’s ideological hirelings – the mass media, the churches, the universities – work overtime to convince people that the war they are fighting is against genocide, for democracy, for defense against aggression or for some other noble ideal that masks the true imperialist war aims and capital’s class interests. Socialist opposition often has to start with exposure of the ideological lies, establishing the real aims and politics of the war.

Defensive and aggressive wars

When and where has there been a war since so-called public opinion has played a role in governmental calculations, in which each and every belligerent party did not with a heavy heart, draw the sword from its sheath for the single and sole purpose of defending its Fatherland and its own righteous cause from the shameful attacks of the enemy? This legend is as inextricably a part of the game of war as powder and lead.
Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet

Modern imperialist war has an inherent contradiction, which often explodes in revolutionary fury at the end of the conflict. The capitalist class often requires mass mobilizations, the draft and heavy taxation for a war that benefits only itself. To overcome this contradiction, the belligerents all lie to their own people to gain mass support. The primary lie is, “We did not want war. It was unavoidable, forced upon us by enemy attack. We are only defending ourselves.” All the warring parties claim to be defending themselves. Socialists must sort through this web of deceit and unravel the imperialist relations of the belligerent camps.

While the question of who was the aggressor may help in disproving government lies and understanding the politics of a war, war politics can’t be reduced to who is the aggressor or the most aggressive, and who is the defender. The most primitive level of this question is, “Who fired the first shot?” When war begins, all sides attempt to pin the label of aggressor on the other side, maneuvering to make the antagonist appear to be firing the first shot. The purpose is to manipulate public opinion into believing the claim of a war for self-defense.

The Vietnam War began with such an incident in August 1964, when the United States charged that two U.S. ships were fired upon off the coast of North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin. The House of Representatives voted 416–0 for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave the government the authority to take any actions it deemed necessary to “defend South East Asia from Communist aggression.” Years later, the Pentagon Papers revealed that President Johnson had written this resolution months before, and had waited to introduce it until the U.S. could claim that it had been attacked. The Pentagon Papers further documented that the U.S. ships, the Turner Joy and the Maddox, were off the coast of North Vietnam on spying and kidnapping missions. It is not clear if the North Vietnamese in fact fired on the ships. Even if they did, that fact tells us very little about what caused those shots to be fired or the policies behind the so-called “aggression.”

A more sophisticated orchestration to convince the American people of the defensive nature of the war was the plan for the launching of the U.S. air war against North Vietnam in February 1965. The decision to bomb had been made three months earlier by Johnson and his advisers. They ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to devise a strategic plan, which they called “provocative engagement.” This plan was a campaign to entrap North Vietnam in irritating incidents, in the expectation that they would eventually fire upon U.S. installations. When, after months of this operation, the Vietnamese did attack a U.S. base at Pleiku, the U.S. began the previously planned air war, claiming it was a defense of South Vietnam from Communist aggression.

Despite U.S. maneuvering for a war it wanted, had the Vietnamese been the aggressor, the underlying politics of the war would not have changed: it was a just war of national liberation on the Vietnamese part, and of imperialist conquest on the part of the U.S. – no matter who was the aggressor. If the politics of the “aggressor” are just, we support the aggressor. (We might in fact demand an aggressive policy that results in war to gain a goal like national liberation.)

Finally, there remains the question of phony defensive posturing between imperialist competitors as they attempt to maintain or change existing imperialist relations. In an inter-imperialist contest, the question of who is the aggressor and who is the defender – in the network of shifting imperialist alignments – is a sideshow.

In sum, the issue of whether one side was the aggressor may tell you something about whether or not that side is lying about the defensive nature of its war and may provide indications of what its imperialist objectives are, but it cannot tell you the most important questions about the political dynamics of the war.

Democratic wars

We are for wars of democracy against the attempt to impose dictatorship or fascism. We take sides in such conflicts because, as Lenin said, “There can be no victorious socialism that does not practice full democracy, so the proletariat cannot prepare for its victory over the bourgeoisie without an all-round, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy.” [8] In the modern world, virtually all attacks on democracy are class attacks on the democratic rights of workers and the institutions of workers’ democracy within capitalist society – such as unions, the workers’ press, parties and political organizations. We fight against all attacks on democracy, in our own revolutionary way, and recognize that the struggle for democracy can turn into a war for democracy.

The case of General Kornilov in the Russian Revolution of 1917 is an illustrative example. During the Russian Revolution, General Kornilov led a right-wing coup to overthrow the bourgeois Kerensky government. The Bolsheviks understood that the coup was an attempt by the landowners and capitalists to destroy the soviets, push back workers’ democracy and institute a right-wing dictatorship. As this was the decisive character of the war, the Bolsheviks defended Kerensky, even though he had recently suppressed working-class demonstrations, banned Bolshevik newspapers, had Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders jailed and forced Lenin into hiding.

But in joining forces with Kerensky to fight Kornilov, the Bolsheviks did not support the Kerensky government. Lenin argued:

We are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary we expose his weakness ... We are changing the form of our struggle against Kerensky. Without in the least relaxing our hostility towards him, without taking back a single word said against him, without renouncing the task of overthrowing him, we say that we must take into account the present situation. We shall not overthrow Kerensky right now ... It would be wrong to think that we have moved farther away from the task of the proletariat winning power. No. We have come very close to it, not directly but from the side. At the moment we must campaign not so much directly against Kerensky, as indirectly against him, namely by demanding a more and more active, truly revolutionary war against Kornilov. The development of this war alone can lead us to power, but we must speak of this as little as possible in our propaganda ... We must relentlessly fight against phrases about the defense of the country, about a united front of revolutionary democrats, about supporting the Provisional Government, etc., etc., since they are just empty phrases. We must say now is the time for action.” [9]

The Bolsheviks created the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Soviets and organized the Red Guards, a 40,000-strong workers’ militia in the factories. This successful policy won a majority for the Bolsheviks in the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets, providing the basis for the later insurrection against Kerensky.

The policy of supporting a war in collaboration with government forces, but refusing to support the government leading the war has entered Marxist language as the policy of “military support, but not political support.” It is a political position, not a military one. It is often the way we support a war whose politics we agree with, but whose leadership we oppose. Had the Bolsheviks not drawn this important if subtle distinction, they would have fallen into the trap of supporting the Provisional Government, which was hostile to soviet power and intent on continuing the imperialist First World War.

Ultraleft, apolitical purists often reject the policy of military, but not political support. During the German Revolution, the Kapp Putsch in 1920 tried to overthrow the social democratic government and set up a military dictatorship. The Social Democrats had in the preceding 18 months collaborated with the army to organize counter-revolution to suppress the workers’ councils. When the right attempted to institute dictatorship, the Social Democrats and the trade unions organized a successful general strike that defeated the coup. The Communist Party initially refused to support the general strike on grounds that both sides were counter-revolutionary servants of capitalism. True, but it missed the decisive questions of that struggle: the difference between bourgeois democracy and dictatorship, the defense of democracy by the working class, and how the defense of democracy can be carried over to a revolutionary offensive.

Wars against fascism

The Spanish Civil War was a war to defend democracy against Franco’s fascism. But the Spanish Republican government was a coalition of capitalist and reform socialist parties whose conduct in pursuing the war was consistent with their class interests. They refused to grant independence to Morocco, even though Franco’s troops were Moroccan and his army might have disintegrated had the colony been granted freedom. The Spanish capitalists who sided with the Republic were more committed to imperialism than to anti-fascism.

Meanwhile, behind Republican lines, a social revolution was unfolding. Workers seized arms, created factory militia to fight the fascists and established workers’ control in factories; and peasants seized and collectivized land. The Republican government did everything to destroy the workers’ revolution and to placate the capitalists in the name of “anti-fascist unity.” The Republican government pursued this course despite the fact that it so demoralized the peasantry and sections of the working class that it made Franco’s victory possible. In the end, the Republic considered Franco’s victory to be a lesser evil to socialist revolution.

Revolutionary Marxists were for the victory of Republican democracy and aimed their guns at the fascists, but were not political supporters of the Republic (similar to the Bolsheviks in the Kornilov affair). Victory against fascism could only be achieved by revolutionary measures – freedom for Morocco, land to the peasants, workers’ control in the factories – and that required a revolutionary struggle against the Republican government. The class policies involved in how a war is waged can be decisive for its outcome.

Sometimes not fighting a war can be the worst fate to befall a working class. Hitler and the Nazis came to power peacefully, without war. The absence of an organized, armed, violent resistance was a continuation of the bankrupt politics of the leadership of the workers’ parties. The Communists, under Stalin’s ultra-left Third Period line, argued that social democracy was social fascism, in fact worse than fascism, and that bourgeois democracy was another form of fascism not worth defending. The Social Democrats preached acceptance of Hitler’s ascension to power on grounds that it was legal and democratic. They discouraged violent resistance as unnecessary since, they argued, the Nazis would act constitutionally when faced with parliamentary responsibility. Not fighting a war to defend democracy destroyed the German labor movement.

Wars of national liberation

The character of twentieth century warfare is imperialism, but also its dialectical opposite: wars of national liberation against imperialism. The right to self-determination is a democratic right, in which a nation determines its political fate free of foreign domination. This means the right of a nation to secede and set up its own state, or to unite with another state. It is a right that should be supported by all consistent democrats. Yet virtually no one but socialists defends self-determination as a principle that should apply to all nations, rather than as a privilege for some nations.

The opposite of self-determination is forced annexation for the gain of the oppressor nation, not for the benefit of the conquered nation. While foreign conquest solely benefits the ruling class, the working class often accepts the chauvinist and racist ideas of its own ruling class. Workers might accept that their nation (really its ruling class) has some right to rule other nations. This acceptance of ruling-class national chauvinism enslaves the workers of the oppressor nation to their own national bourgeoisie. If workers do not believe that their ruling class exploits and oppresses foreign nations, then they certainly do not believe that they themselves are exploited, obviating the necessity to struggle for their own emancipation. As Marx observed, “No nation that oppresses another can be free.” Ideas of national chauvinism are widespread among Americans, including liberals and leftists, who tolerate the mentality and arrogance of U.S. imperialism. They believe that their ruling class is entitled to wage foreign interventions because it does so to benefit other nations. They reserve this touching trust in U.S. humanitarian sensibilities only for their own capitalist class, not for those of U.S. rivals. When the U.S. ruling class killed 2–3 million Vietnamese civilians, Russia or China were not called upon to bomb New York and other American cities in the name of the humanitarian protection of the Vietnamese.

An oppressed nation is entitled to self-determination no matter how undemocratic or nasty its leadership or ruling class is. National liberation is not socialism, and a ruling class often leads the struggle for it with all of its ruling-class faults. We make no condition that a nation should be free only if its leaders live up to socialist standards. If a war decisively continues the politics of the struggle for self-determination, it is a war for national liberation and we support it.

In the Vietnam War, the National Liberation Front (NLF) was supported by the Vietnamese nation, with the exception of the landlord-capitalist clique that surrounded the South Vietnamese collaborator regime and the puppets, dependents and hangers-on of the U.S. military overlords. The U.S. war against Vietnam was a “dirty war,” a war against a whole people. As U.S. troops said, it was impossible to tell who was the enemy – everyone was the enemy. This fact led the officers of the U.S. army to commit genocidal crimes, previously only associated with fascist armies. In the village of My Lai, U.S. troops followed their officers in killing every man, woman, child and infant – more than 400 people. My Lai was one of dozens of such atrocities for which the U.S. ruling class was never tried for war crimes.

During the Vietnam War, we were not “pro-peace,” for “non-violent conflict resolution” or for negotiations on the differences between the two sides. We were against the war of the U.S. and for U.S. defeat. We were for the victory of the NLF, the movement leading the Vietnamese struggle, despite its Stalinist leadership whose politics we did not support. We had no illusions in that leadership, unlike much of the left which apologized for it, or the Maoists and orthodox Trotskyists who considered the NLF to be socialist because it was led by Stalinists. We knew the NLF would set up a state capitalist regime that would deny all democratic rights and powers to workers and peasants in order to better exploit them. The Vietnamese nation had the right to determine its fate, no matter the outcome, or the undemocratic nature of its leadership. To overthrow that leadership is the task of the Vietnamese working class, not a task outsourced to U.S. imperialism, whose democratic signature is the millions of civilians it has bombed to death.

We also understood what the Vietnamese victory meant for the struggle against imperialism. As Hal Draper, a leading Marxist, wrote at the time:

As revolutionary socialists in the U.S. our immediate enemy is American capitalism and its imperialism; we wish to fight American capitalism at home and American imperialism abroad by every available means. At bottom this is a single fight, since any weakening of American imperialism abroad or defeat suffered by it abroad also weakens the domestic capitalist power structure and facilitates opposition at home. The same is also true for other imperialist states, since a weakening or defeat of one or another imperialist power reverberates through the interconnected structure of world imperialism. Therefore, objectively, anti-imperialist struggle by any people is an aid to the forces of revolutionary change at home. [10]

In the 1920s, the Comintern similarly argued that world revolution would be a joint struggle of the working class fighting for socialist revolution in the imperialist countries, in alliance with the peoples of the colonial world fighting national wars against imperialism.

Politics of NATO’s war

The collapse of Stalinism a decade ago was heralded as the “end of history,” the ushering in of a conflict-free era of democracy and prosperity. Capitalist reality quickly shattered that illusion. When Yugoslavia collapsed, intercommunal slaughter in ethnically mixed areas was stoked up by rival ruling classes desperate to gain population and territory for their economically unviable mini-states, which to survive became client dependencies of the imperialist powers. The alternative to this nightmare is a Balkan Federation that protects the equality and national rights of the all of the Balkan peoples.

In the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia, the U.S. at first, as the Bush administration put it, “had no dog in the race.” Its original response to ethnic warfare was a policy of benign neglect: let the Europeans sort it out. But step by step, the U.S. was tempted into the Balkan quagmire.

For the U.S., the politics of NATO’s war against Serbia are to maintain military hegemony over Europe, one of the greatest prizes and strategic assets of its imperialism. To do so, the U.S. has to prevent Milosevic from dominating and destabilizing the Balkans, thus jeopardizing U.S. influence over Europe. This objective first emerged in the Bosnian War, when it became clear that the European powers were too divided by their conflicting imperialist interests to end that war. The U.S. jumped at the opportunity to be the “Indispensable Nation,” the only force capable of policing the “peaceful” status quo of Europe.

The U.S. loudly proclaims that its national interest in this war is NATO’s credibility, a NATO whose policies are those of the United States. NATO was set up fifty years ago as a “defensive” alliance to organize capitalist Europe under American hegemony against rival Russian imperialism. With the end of the Cold War, the rationale for NATO dissolved. But for the U.S., NATO is too valuable to give up. A new role for NATO has been found, as an offensive alliance, despite the threat that this poses to Russia and China. In State Department thinking, NATO is to be the multilateral posse, under the lead of the indispensable U.S. sheriff. All wars are used as military theaters to test new weapons and strategies, and this war tests the new NATO plan.

The U.S. has no immediate economic interests in this war, but if it emerges victorious, it will use its strengthened military position as leverage to gain economic concessions in global trade. As added insurance, if the world devolves into trading blocs, the U.S., as the military protector of Europe, could not be excluded from the Common Market bloc.

The U.S. wanted this war – or, more accurately, what it wanted could only be achieved by war. It presented an ultimatum at Rambouillet to Milosevic whose terms included the right of NATO to station troops anywhere in Yugoslavia. They knew these terms had to be rejected. This is not a failure of diplomacy, or incompetence, as some critics of Albright-Clinton charge. It was a deliberate calculation by the U.S., which in the months leading up to Rambouillet worked hard to ensure that the outcome would be capitulation or war. Yet in all that time they made no plans to protect the Kosovar Albanians from the ethnic cleansing that their intelligence reports informed them would occur. Such human misery was useful in justifying war with Serbia, in concealing the web of imperialist relations. Refugees in this war serve the purpose of claiming a war of defense, that “we were forced into this war by the other sides’ actions. We had no other humane choice. The war is to defend these people.”

But the U.S. war against Serbia was never to protect refugees or prevent atrocities. Great atrocities are committed daily by U.S. imperialism. NATO’s war has been conducted not only against the Milosevic regime and its military, but also against the Serbian people. As such, it has bolstered Milosevic’s political hold over Serbia, and devastated the democratic opposition. U.S. war policy is to destroy the economic infrastructure of Serbia, to bomb it – as Vietnam and Iraq were bombed – “back to the Stone Age.” U.S. policy has been designed to ruin the lives and health of the Serbian population, to deprive them of water, power, hospitals, sanitation, etc., until they can be forced to bend to the will of the U.S.

For months, U.S. policy ordered pilots to fly at a height that yielded imprecise bombing with “unfortunate stray missiles.” The decision was made that the collateral murder of thousands of men, women and children was nothing compared to the possibility of a few U.S. military casualties. This political calculation to restrain domestic opposition comes out of an arrogant, imperialist contempt for Serb civilians. The “humanitarianism” of the U.S. ruling class is exemplified by its recycled Vietnam War tactics: the U.S. drops cluster bombs, anti-personnel weapons whose sole purpose is murder, in populated areas. In the first two months of the war, NATO killed few Serb soldiers, but hundreds of Serbian and Albanian civilians. The reactionary character of the U.S./NATO imperialist war exists in its policies and results. Since the U.S. continues to control the UN, its courts won’t indict Clinton, Blair & Co. as war criminals.

Serbian war politics

Serbia’s politics in this war can be summed up in the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia.” The Serb government is fighting for the continued, forced incorporation of Kosovo, though its 90 percent Albanian population wants the right to secede. Serbia forcibly annexed Kosovo from Albania at the end of the imperialist Balkan Wars of 1912–13. The Albanians were the only oppressed nation within the old Yugoslavia.

The ethnic cleansing by the Serbs is the key to the reactionary nature of the war on their part: this is a war against a whole people. Atrocities are committed in order to enforce mass flight – similar to the displacement of the Palestinians by the Israelis, and the ethnic carve-up of Bosnia. The only way to make true the claim that “Kosovo is Serbia” is to drive out the Albanian population.

Milosevic’s war against Kosovo is not in the interests of the Serbian working class. The policies of the regime are leading Serbia to destruction. Only revolutionary measures to change the politics of this war – overthrowing Milosevic, freeing Kosovo, arming working people and making direct political appeals to the workers of Greece, Italy and Germany to stop NATO’s war – could have created the conditions necessary to defeat NATO aggression. Without these revolutionary measures, Milosevic has led the Serbian people to a certain defeat and opened the way for NATO’s domination of the region.

Nationalist elements in an imperialist war

There is a legitimate national element in this war – that of the Kosovar Albanians for self-determination. If the war had remained simply between Serbia and the Albanians, socialists would have been duty-bound to support the victory of the Kosovar Albanians. But a national element in a war is not the same as a national war. This is not the first war in the Balkans and, as before, the genuine national aspirations of one group – in this case, the ethnic Albanians – has become once again the plaything of big power politics. This is fundamentally not a war of national liberation, but a war in which the U.S. is using the mistreatment of a nationally oppressed group as a stalking-horse for its imperialism. The main combatants are not the Serbs and the Albanians, but the Serbs and the Americans, with the latter using the “protection” they have established over the Albanians to enforce their domination over the Balkans and Europe.

There are many instances of national elements in wars that cannot be called national wars. Among the most famous was that of Serbia in the First World War. Writing on this case, Lenin said:

In the present war the national element is represented only by Serbia’s war against Austria ... It is only in Serbia and among the Serbs that we can find a national liberation movement of long standing, embracing millions, ‘the masses of the people,’ a movement of which the present war of Serbia against Austria is a ‘continuation’. If this war were an isolated one, i.e. if it were not connected with the general European war, with the selfish and predatory aims of Britain, Russia, etc., it would have been the duty of all socialists to desire the success of the Serbian bourgeoisie – that is the only correct and absolutely inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the national element in the present war ... The national element in the Serbo-Austrian war is not, and cannot be, of any serious significance in the general European war. [11]

Rosa Luxemburg made the same argument:

If ever a state, according to formal considerations, had the right of national defense, that state is Serbia ... But behind Serbian nationalism stands Russian imperialism. Serbia itself is only a pawn in the great game of world politics. [12]

Behind the Kosovar Albanians stands U.S. imperialism. The Albanian refugees, the KLA and the Balkan mini-states are their pawns. The U.S. is opposed in principal to the right of self-determination, or to the redrawing of state borders which disrupt the stability of Pax Americana. The U.S. rejects Kosovo’s independence, it rejects the Kosovar Albanians’ right to democratically decide their future. Rather, the U.S. and NATO are to decide, and in their version of Balkan “stability,” an autonomous Kosovo is to remain part of Serbia.

The U.S. only opposes ethnic cleansing when it serves its purposes. Turkey, a NATO member, has killed more Kurds in the last decade than Milosevic has Albanians. In the Bosnian War, the U.S. sponsored the ethnic cleansing of 200,000 Serbs from Croatia’s Krajina region to broker its Dayton Accords. The U.S., for political reasons, winked at the genocide in Rwanda, and has for decades been the unwavering defender of Israel against the ethnically cleansed Palestinians. Never forget, this is the same U.S. ruling class that casually murdered more than 2 million Vietnamese civilians when it served its interests.

End the war

Our sympathy for the Kosovar Albanians cannot blind us to the imperialist politics of America’s war against Serbia. Our sympathy for the Serb people facing NATO’s bombs cannot lead us to support Serbia’s racist war against the Kosovar Albanians as a lesser evil.

As Americans, our main enemy is at home: our own ruling class, whose jets are bombing the Serbian people. Serbia is a fourth-rate power arrayed against the combined might of the world’s greatest military powers. The main danger to world peace comes from the U.S. The victory of the U.S. will strengthen the world’s strongest imperialism, whose imperative is further wars for expansion and to hold onto its far-flung empire. Our main weapons must be directed against it – its propaganda, its lies, its atrocities and its war carried out in our name.

In the struggle against this war, in building the anti-war movement and in the growing anti-war sentiment, socialists also have the task of political clarification. It is socialists who have to argue the case for anti-imperialism, national liberation, internationalism and the revolutionary fight against war. We are strengthened in these tasks by the theoretical heritage of Marxism, which sums up the lessons of past struggles.

This century is ending the same as it began, with the choices before humanity of imperialist barbarism or international socialism. Opposition to imperialist war is the strongest argument in the socialist case against a capitalist system whose decay produces horror without end.

* * *


1. Quoted in Jean Tussey, ed., Eugene V. Debs (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), p. 231.

2. V.I. Lenin & G.Y. Zinoviev, Socialism and War, in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 21 (Moscow: Progress, 1964), p. 299.

3. Carl von Clausewitz was born in 1780. He served in Prussia’s Rhine Campaign 1793–94. In 1801, he joined the Berlin Military Academy as a student, and from 1818–30, he became the academy’s director. He died in 1831. His famous work, Vom Kriege (On War), was published posthumously by his wife in 1832.

4. V.I. Lenin, The Collapse of the Second International, in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 21 (Moscow: Progress, 1964), p. 219.

5. V.I. Lenin, War and Revolution, in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 24 (Moscow: Progress, 1964), p. 398.

6. From Pentagon to Triangle, Wall Street Journal, 17 May 1999.

7. Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Mary-Alice Waters, ed. (New York: Pathfinder, 1970), p. 279.

8. V.I. Lenin, The Socialist Revolution and The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, Theses, in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 22 (Moscow: Progress, 1964), p. 144.

9. V.I. Lenin, To the Central Committee of the R.S.D.L.P., in V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 25 (Moscow: Progress, 1964), pp. 285–9.

10. Hal Draper, The ABC of National Liberation, in America as Overlord: From Yalta to Vietnam (Berkeley: Independent Socialist Press, 1989), p. 188.

11. V.I. Lenin, The Collapse of The Second International, p. 235.

12. Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, pp. 308–309.

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