Revolutionaries and the struggle against war

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We offered this text as a contribution to the discussions at an Anti-War Day School organised by Disobedience in January, in which we participated. It is an appeal for a discussion based on the historical experience of the working class, in particular its revolutionary minorities. The issues raised were similar to those at the Zero War conference held in Australia in December.

With dozens of wars taking place across the world and the growing mobilisation by the US and the UK for an attack on Iraq, there is a greater need than ever to be clear about what "revolutionary opposition to war" actually means. In Disobedience's proposal for an Anti-War Day School there is the suggestion that "theory should inform our practice". There is only one way that practice can be informed by theory: by drawing on the lessons of proletarian history. Against pacifism and protest stunts

Revolutionaries have always opposed pacifist ideology. Against sentimental appeals for universal harmony, they insisted on an internationalism that was based on the common struggle of the working class against the ruling class and all its governments.

At the beginning of the 20th century, against attempts to smuggle pacifist conceptions into resolutions of the Second International, revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin insisted that the workers' struggle was not just against the outbreak of war but should "profit in any way possible from the economic and political crisis to rouse the people and in this way hasten the collapse of capitalist domination". War was not only to be denounced, but also to be seen as a factor that could provoke proletarian revolution.

Today, there is no mass, permanently organised workers' movement. Instead, revolutionaries are confronted with a 'Labour Movement' which is really the left wing of capitalism. In the face of war, the capitalist left is given the job of organising pacifist fronts like the Stop the War Coalition (STWC). The STWC's main function is to prevent the development of a revolutionary opposition to war:

  • by spreading illusions in a "peaceful" and "legal" capitalism
  • by selling "alternative" ways of supporting war (war is OK if the UN backs it, war is OK if it's an anti-US war by "oppressed nations", etc).
  • by providing a falsely "practical" method of opposing war which can mobilise hundreds of thousands and make any class opposition look puny and insignificant.

The problem with many who are critical of the STWC is that too often they still buy the argument that "at least it's doing something" and end up either tailing along in its demonstrations, or trying to devise radical-looking "protest" stunts which substitute themselves for the real development of the proletarian movement.

However unfashionable it may sound, the fact remains that the bourgeoisie's drive towards war can only be blocked and ultimately stopped by the massive struggles of the working class. Working class resistance and the overthrow of capitalism

The experience of the First World War, which was brought to an end by a wave of revolutionary working class struggles, is still profoundly relevant today. The working class went from being divided and mobilised in the massive slaughter between nations to fighting against the governments that had mobilised it. Capitalism everywhere was under threat. In 1919 Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister, was moved to write that "The whole existing order in its political social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of Europe from one end of Europe to the other."

Today the situation is different. The working class in Europe is not enlisted in capitalism's armies, but also there are no widespread workers' struggles. However, it is only on the basis of defensive struggles, resistance against the attacks of the ruling class today, that we can see the possibilities of a struggle to overthrow the bourgeoisie tomorrow. The essential role of revolutionary organisations

While it is necessary to reject forms of activity that link up with leftist campaigns such as the STWC and stunts that are just a more "radical" form of pacifism, it is also possible to show the very positive role that revolutionaries can play, even if they are a tiny minority.

In the First World War, for example, the Spartakusbund in Germany insisted that only a world proletarian revolution could put an end to world war, and in Russia the Bolsheviks called for the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war. Along with the propaganda and agitation in the working class there were also attempts to bring together the very small numbers defending a revolutionary position.

The conferences of Zimmerwald (1915) and Kienthal (1916) involved very few people and only a small Left minority which defended the positions which would eventually form the bases for the foundation of the Communist International. For the most far-sighted elements what was necessary was the defence of internationalist, class positions against the imperialist war. Above all, revolutionaries tried to ensure that their voice could be distinguished from others, in particular those social democratic, anarchist and trade unionist organisations who now served the war effort. Today, while the situation is different there is a similar need for revolutionaries to ensure that they have a distinct presence.

Revolutionaries, for example, have no part to play on pacifist demonstrations, which have more and more shown themselves to be not anti-war but pro-war rallies. But they do have a responsibility to ensure that a position for class war and against imperialist war is made as loudly as their limited forces allow at such gatherings. Where leftism and pacifism are mobilising for the ruling class, revolutionaries have to put forward the need for workers to defend their own class interests, to discuss among themselves, reflect on what's at stake in their struggles and prepare for the massive movements that will be necessary if capitalism is to be overthrown. Necessity for proletarian debate

The revolutionary opposition to the First World War was led not by loose associations of individuals but by revolutionary political organisations that were formed around a clear communist platform. The same is true for the much smaller minorities who continued to defend internationalism during the second imperialist slaughter. Today it remains the case that revolutionary clarity - on war or on any other issue - requires a revolutionary organisation to defend and develop it. At the same time, in Britain, as elsewhere we are seeing the emergence of a large number of groups and circles which have been seeking to discuss the question of war from a working class position. Such groupings can make an important contribution to the development of revolutionary consciousness but they are also subject to all kinds of dangers:

  • discussing without perspective and without reference to the historical experience of the working class
  • falling into activism and offering themselves as an easy option to the difficult task of building a communist organisation.

For any group that wants to discuss the question of war (or, for that matter, anything else that affects the working class) certain points should be taken as fundamental:

  • groups should be open to all those interested in the fight against war on a working class basis;
  • there should be no exclusions on the basis of secondary political differences, personal antagonisms, or the reluctance to engage in debate with existing revolutionary political organisations.

Discussion is the life-blood of the working class, and anything that is an obstacle to its development should be condemned. The ruling class is organising for war; the least that revolutionaries can do is organise discussions that can play a part in the development of workers' struggles.

WR, January 2003.

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