Of the many utopian positions widespread in the left today, some of the most persistent – and misguided – are various manifestations of pacifism. At its core, this type of thinking can be reduced to a single fundamental assumption: that the atrocities of imperialist war can be overcome and allayed without the disappearance of class society.
In the anglophone left alone this is an idea that manifests in a wide spectrum of political tendencies, ranging from the self-labelled anarchism of Noam Chomsky and the milquetoast social democracy of Jeremy Corbyn to the Green Party-politics of perennial candidate Jill Stein. In the American political landscape in particular – even within the unapologetically imperialist Democratic Party – pacifism has today found a new resurgence in the past year, with both the (admittedly short-lived) presidential candidacy of Mike Gravel and the successful 2018 campaign of Minnesota senator Ilhan Omar, whose condemnations of the Obama administration’s extensive military operations, Israeli oppression of Palestinians, and Trump’s support for the ongoing coup in Venezuela indicate a significant departure from the usual rhetoric tossed out by elected American politicians.
Within the Marxist left, this kind of politics is exemplified by the Socialist Party of Great Britain, arguably the most direct inheritors of the tradition of pre-World War I social democracy. The SPGB maintain a unique position amongst self-described Marxist groups; in contrast with myriad Stalinist, Maoist, and Trotskyist tendencies, they display a clear understanding of socialism as the disappearance of class society, abolition of wage labour, and production on the basis of need, and do not peddle state capitalist illusions or the empty promises of nationalization under capitalism. However, the group is infamous for its bizarre argument that parliament and the ballot box are vehicles capable of delivering such a society. Hence, although the SPGB has to its credit consistently maintained opposition to all bourgeois factions in imperialist wars over the years – again a rare position – its strand of anti-militarism, rooted as it is by faith in capitalist institutions, falls thoroughly into the pacifist camp.
In one way or another, large sectors of the contemporary left now fall victim to these kinds of illusions, either lining up directly behind pacifist parliamentarians or else otherwise arguing that the bourgeois state is a class-neutral tool capable of combatting capitalist war, if only held in the “right hands”. In many ways, this is an understandable instinct in the well-intentioned; imperialist wars represent perhaps the most vicious and appalling excesses of capitalism today, and it is impossible to gaze upon the vast devastation in Syria, Yemen, Libya or Iraq and not wish for an easy solution. However, as Marxists, our task is ruthless criticism, and a serious materialist analysis of the “solutions” offered up by the liberal “anti-imperialists” of the modern left makes abundantly clear their inadequacy.
To understand the shortcomings of pacifism today it is valuable to first trace its lineage back to the First World War, which served as a tipping point in the strength of the global communist movement. At the outbreak of the war, as social democratic parties across Europe voted in favor of war credits that would eventually lead to sixteen million deaths across Europe, Asia, and North Africa, the majority of international Marxists realized the need to split from these reformist parties. By 1917, most had either left or been expelled from the crumbling ruins of the Second International, forming the independent Communist Parties that would eventually constitute the Comintern. One key exception was Karl Kautsky, a German socialist who at one time had been regarded as a principal inheritor of the tradition of Marx and Engels. At the outbreak of WWI, Kautsky had waffled, claiming that Germany’s role in the upcoming conflict was strictly “defensive” and that the German working class hence had a stake in the violence about to break out. When it became clear that this was not the case, he switched his position and eventually left the German Social Democratic Party, only to rejoin in 1920. Throughout this period, while nominally opposing the war, Kautsky refused to back revolutionary action against it, in effect endorsing a strictly parliamentary road to its end. This was consistent with his theoretical positions by that point; in 1914, Kautsky had proposed a theory of “ultra or hyper-imperialism”, wherein he argued that it was possible for the industrially advanced nations of the world to overcome their militarist competition and form a kind of international cartel, unified in the subjugation of the third-world and exploitation of workers in agrarian economies.1 Though not envisioning this to be a favorable state of affairs, presumably Kautsky saw it as an immediate alternative to the acute bloodshed and horrors of World War I, and so took on a politics that confined him strictly within this parliamentary scope of action.
One of the strongest critiques against this opportunist tendency came from the Dutch Marxist and future council communist Anton Pannekoek, who in 1916 published a polemic against Kautsky’s deviations entitled Imperialism and the Tasks of the Proletariat. For Kautsky, Pannekoek wrote, “imperialism was just a bourgeois madness about the arms-race, nurtured by a few great capitalists, and from which one had to dissuade the bourgeoisie by means of good arguments”. This notion precisely is what underlies the left’s bourgeois and pacifist tendencies today; the parliamentarians – Corbyn, Gravel, Stein, or Omar – argue that a few nice speeches and a few strong bills in Congress are sufficient to undermine the ruling class’ endless wars, and their supporters on the left feed directly into these ideas.
Conspicuously absent in these politics is the centrality of class struggle, and, indeed, against the parliamentary utopianism of Kautsky, Pannekoek counterposed the mass action of the working class. He understood that the class-conscious proletariat is the only progressive force in capitalism’s imperialist phase, and that any solution to imperialism must therefore come from the organized working class, not careerist politicians. Let us examine why.
Who Declares War?
The first and principal error of the pacifist supporters of the capitalist order lies in the notion that parliamentary politicians have the ability to meaningfully combat capitalist militarism. As is well-known, however, parliamentary bodies comprise only a small fraction of the true extent of the state, and are really only a shallow veneer. True capitalist power lies not in the hands of elected politicians but instead in a complex, bureaucratic, and intertwined web of unaccountable civil servants, shadowy intelligence bodies, and international alliances and collectives. Indeed, televised debates within grand palaces and marble buildings are often merely a distraction from the real functions and decisions of governance, many of which take place behind closed doors. In Pannekoek’s words:
"One could no longer manage against imperialism with the old means. In parliament, one could criticize its manifestations (such as armaments, taxes, reaction, the standstill of social legislation), but one could not influence its policy because it was not made by the parliaments but by small groups of people (in Germany, the Kaiser along with some nobles, generals, ministers and bankers; in England, three or four aristocrats and politicians; in France, a few bankers and ministers). The unions could hardly ward off the powerful business associations; all the skill of their officers broke apart against the granite-power of the cartel-magnates. The reactionary election laws could not be shaken through elections alone. New means of struggle were necessary. The proletarian masses themselves had to enter the stage with active methods of struggle."
Consider as an example the political bodies of the United States. Even a cursory examination reveals the inherent unaccountability of the American war machine; though the US Constitution prescribes that only Congress has the power to declare war, the last time such a declaration was made was December 8, 1941. This of course hasn’t stopped the American military from engaging in countless imperialist exploits over the past eighty years, establishing military bases in every corner of the world and funding proxy militias when unwilling to intervene directly. Arms sales do not even have the honor of being voted on in Congress, and are instead approved by unelected State Department officials; for a recent example see the US sale of three and a half billion dollars worth of missiles to Turkey as aid in its genocidal cleansing of the Kurds.2 In many cases, courses of military action are decided on by deeply unaccountable international alliances, with NATO and the UN Security Council two of the most prominent (the military intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, for instance, was strictly a NATO operation, and did not involve official declarations of war from any of its constituent powers despite employing military forces from over a dozen countries). Even when bills and resolutions appear claiming to guarantee the end of this or that US military operation, they are often either vetoed or else ignored. As two recent examples, Trump has claimed repeatedly in the past year that he is withdrawing American troops from Syria, and yet a majority of American troops remain.3 Conversely, Congress last year passed a resolution to end American military involvement in Yemen; this was immediately vetoed and subsequently ignored by Trump.4 Even if Trump had supported the bill, there’s little guarantee it would have meant an end to American military presence in the region: NATO still officially supports the Saudi blockade, and independent intelligence agencies like the CIA are able to conduct military operations without the knowledge or approval of US Central Command.5 And most recently, the assassination of Soleimani was carried out without Congressional approval, under the pretext of "self-defense" against an "imminent" attack from Iran.6
The point here is that the bourgeoisie will not bow to the whims of elected officials, and that the supposed “checks and balances” of the US government are a complete fabrication that, if anything, serve only to cement capital’s hold on the political functioning of a nation. This kind of pattern is repeated in liberal democracies the world over, and the notion that some benevolent social democrat can with a wave of their hands overcome the immense bureaucratic structures that lurk behind the capitalist state is entirely utopian. This state of affairs is part of a much larger trend – the degeneration of bourgeois democracy from a progressive force to a reactionary one – and today Lenin’s description of parliamentary bodies as “hollow talking shops” rings more true than ever.
Marxists must have no faith in the capitalist state, and support for bourgeois parliamentarians – far from obstructing the forces of capital – instead strengthens their grip by sowing illusions of the reformability of un-reformable institutions.
The Bourgeois Party Form
Hence, insofar as they cannot offer any solutions to imperialist war, parliamentary parties are today obsolete, and participation within them must instead be superseded by militant action of the working class. Some, however, might protest that the latter can be supplemented or enhanced by the former – that there is still merit in participation in bourgeois parties as a platform by which to spread Marxist ideas. This is, on the one hand, a tactic that reeks of opportunism – how else can one describe lining up behind capitalist factions for the sake of selling a few extra papers? On the other, it is a fantasy; to see why, it is important to understand the fundamental nature of the bourgeois party. Pannekoek describes this eloquently:
"[T]he whole nature of a large, fully developed party, of which German Social Democracy is the model, … is an entrenched gigantic organization, functioning almost as a state within the state, with its own officers, finances, press, intellectual world and ideology. The general character of this organization is adapted to the peaceful pre-imperialist period; the mainstays of this character are the officials, secretaries, agitators, parliamentarians, theorists and writers, numbering several thousand individuals who already constitute a distinct caste, a group with their own interests who thereby totally dominate the organization spiritually and materially. It is no coincidence that they all, with Kautsky at their head, want to know nothing about a real and fierce struggle against imperialism. All their vital interests are opposed to the new tactic, which threatens their existence as officials. Their peaceful work in offices and editorial departments, in congresses and committee meetings, in writing learned and unlearned articles against the bourgeoisie and against each other – this whole peaceful hustle and bustle is threatened by the storms of the imperialist era. Kautsky’s theory and tactics are an attempt to secure this whole bureaucratic-learned apparatus against injury in the coming social revolutions."
In other words, the very existence and livelihood of the parliamentarian rests on their ability to quell proletarian militancy. So, when the pacifist politician argues that parliament and legislative bills alone are enough to combat imperialism, it is not that they are the friends of imperialist war, or consciously lying – on the contrary, no one can doubt their sincerity in denouncing mass slaughter, carpet bombings, and famine – but instead that their political program is one that inherently requires capitalism for its existence, and so can only argue for tactics that preserve capitalist relations. In short, they have been duped into acting as capital’s unwilling lapdogs, promising change that they are unable to deliver and hence diverting the revolutionary proletariat from its necessary tasks. As soon as liberal democracy lost its progressive and revolutionary character, so then emerged its fundamental and inexorable opposition to industrial action, and to think that the careerist parliamentarian will promote the mass action of the working class – a tactic that renders their existence obsolete and against which their very being is opposed – is folly.
Expecting bourgeois parties to vitalize or enable industrial militancy is therefore a significant mistake; their interests lie inherently in dissuading the proletariat from revolutionary action. Only a clean break from capitalist functionaries can promote revolutionary politics.
Anti-Imperialism or Anti-Capitalism?
There is a further and equally fundamental error in these bourgeois pacifist tendencies: an understanding of imperialism that centers analysis on the atrocities of imperialist wars rather than their causes. Let us recall the role that war plays for capital; initially, in capitalism’s early stages, war most often took the form of direct colonialism and capitalist expansion. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1900, “as long as there were countries marked by internal political division or economic isolation that had to be destroyed, militarism played a revolutionary role […] the opening of new countries to capitalism.”7 This was the underpinning of the “New Imperialism” of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, marked by rapid militaristic expansion into Africa and Asia, brutal subjugation of native peoples, and investment in extraction industries for an industrial capitalism that demanded greater quantities of cheap raw materials.
By the time of World War I, however, capitalism had effectively expanded to fill the entire globe, and so the role served by war here was not just about the continued ability of imperialist powers to leech surplus value and natural resources from their colonies, and, on the other, to devalue vast quantities of constant capital and hence maintain a rate of profit against the mounting crises and contradictions of the world market but was also intended to deny other imperialists access to their spheres of influence. (For a more detailed explanation of this understanding of imperialism and world economy, see footnote8 .)
There are two important lessons to understand here: first, that modern capitalism demands war – and indeed cannot survive without it. The second is that imperialism is not merely a military relationship, but, at a more fundamental level, an economic one; war is simply the symptom of crisis in a world economy that demands constant expansion in finite space. Imperialism is therefore not defined by carpet bombings and invasions, but by the international trade relationships that demands them. In particular, when we speak of imperialism, we do not mean only NATO’s or Russia’s bombings in the Middle East to shore up oil contracts, but the actual oil contracts themselves. Thus emphasis on imperialist barbarism, though again understandable, therefore gets things the wrong way round, and centers effect over cause. An example of this lies in China’s extensive investments in sub-Saharan Africa; these have not been arranged by military force, and indeed do not involve bombs or troops. (See footnote9 for an analysis of Chinese investments in the continent.) Yet does this preclude them from making China one of the dominant imperialist powers in the world today? Of course not, though certainly some “tankies” would argue otherwise. Marxists recognize that a crisis of accumulation to which capitalism has no economic answer is bound to drive other major imperialist powers to take a closer interest in investment in African resources. This will inevitably lead to further military conflict than exists, raining fire and devastation down on the local population. In other words, war is the inevitable consequence of capitalist development, and so a fight against the former that does not also fight for an alternative to the latter is doomed to fail.
The relationship between the two is in fact even tighter today than it was in 1916. Capitalism has developed significantly over the last century, and the contemporary world market is more interconnected and intertwined than ever before in history. Large capitalist banks, cartels, and quasi-monopolies span every inch of the map, and a slew of overlapping trade and investment bodies – the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization, European Union, North American Free Trade Association, and others – draw together the bourgeoisie of nearly every nation in the world. Taken all in all, it is a staggering and overwhelming network of bourgeois power. Far from reducing imperialist tensions or promoting peaceful coexistence of the capitalist classes, however, as Kautsky predicted it would do, this interconnectedness and entanglement has instead proved a potent catalyst for imperialist aggression. There is a simple reason for this; as each sector of international industry depends more crucially on the others, even the slightest perturbation or disturbance in one is enough to cause catastrophe in the rest. So, for instance, when Islamist militias take control of Basra, Iraq – a central hub for dozens of oil pipelines and refineries – the disruptions ripple across the globe, shaking international capital and forcing an acute military response from imperialist powers. Another clear example of this lies in the United States’ relations with Venezuela through the turn of the century. Chávez’s rise to power in 1999 barely altered Venezuelan oil exports to the United States by barrel, which remained steady up through Venezuela’s crisis in late 2009.10 Even so, this comparatively minuscule obstruction was enough to provoke a drastic response from the American bourgeoisie, who’ve poured significant funds and energy into removing the Chavista regime for nearly two decades now. Today the nation faces the prospect of a direct military invasion from American forces. Why were such minor changes in oil exports so jarring to American capital? Precisely because the world market is more intricately interlocked than ever before, and thus more sensitive than ever to the smallest of changes.
There is therefore a direct relationship between the financial entanglement of the global market and its fragility. Today, with the world capitalism monstrously gargantuan and unwieldy, this makes the peaceful coexistence of capitalist states entirely impossible, and the international bourgeoisie at every turn faces the choice of either war or crisis, and often both. Crucially, however, this renders entirely utopian a struggle against imperialism that fails to orient against capitalism, and razes in a single fell swoop the hope that even the most benevolent of capitalist politicians can prevent capital’s demand for endless war. Today it is often no longer even the individual capitalist – merely a glorified and entirely replaceable administrator – who seeks out imperialist wars, but instead the far more insatiable appetite of international capital itself.
The Path Forward
All of the above should make clear that the pacifist thus seeks capitalist solutions to a problem insolvable under capitalism. Beyond just its utopian character, this tension leads to a number of bizarre and self-contradictory positions amongst its advocates. Principal amongst these is the well known tendency of “campism” – i.e. the temptation, in the name of “peace”, to back one capitalist military faction as a bulwark against another.
Perhaps the best example of this lies in Syria. The Syrian Civil War is at its core an ethnoreligious and nationalist conflict; Sunnis (in the FSA/al-Nusra Front and in Da’esh), ‘Alawites (in the SAA), Maronites and Druze (in independent defense militias), and Kurds (in the YPG) all have more-or-less distinct militias and factions, every one of which has carried out atrocities and is dedicated to establishing capitalism in one form or another.11 The Syrian working class has nothing to gain from any of these, and yet, for every bourgeois militias in the fray, one can find a self-proclaimed Marxist group backing it. (For documentation of this see footnotes12 or 13 .) The great irony here is that the defense of these factions on the grounds of “anti-imperialism” or national self-determination inevitably turns into support for imperialism under a different banner. To illustrate: last year, when Trump first announced the American troop withdrawal from Syria, several “anarchist” groups across the US organized phone-banking drives to encourage congresspeople to oppose the decision, on the grounds that American military presence was the only bulwark against a Turkish program of invasion and ethnic cleansing. In other words, so the argument ran, the solution to the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds was increased military involvement from the United States government – the same body that funded and armed Turkey for its genocidal invasion of ‘Afrin the preceding year and indirectly armed Da’esh thereby14 , enabling staggering horrors against the Kurdish people. The internal contradiction of this position is clear, and a good illustration of the fact that seeking capitalist solutions to imperialist war can only ever lead to greater conflict and violence; there have been countless examples of this surrounding Syria in the past years. The only solution to the seemingly endless violence in the Levant is mass action of the organized working class – i.e. strikes against arms shipments, bombings, invasions, and the capitalist market that drives them. Today the internationalist sectors of proletariat dedicated to these goals are weak, splintered, and fragmented, but it is the task of Marxists therefore to promote these ideas and organization within the class, not to call on the world’s imperialist powers to extend their already blood-soaked interventions in international conflicts.
Indeed, what does the latter lead to? There are several possibilities. On the one hand, the Kurdish proto-state in Rojava cannot sustain itself against the dual pressure of Erdoğan from the north and Assad from the south; even if the claims of a PYD-led eco-socialist utopia in the region were accurate, its existence would effectively demand a continued presence of the same force responsible for some of the worst atrocities in the war, including the demolition of Raqqa to eighty percent rubble and indiscriminate bombings of schools and hospitals as far east as Mosul. This is not a path to any kind of meaningful peace or liberation of the Syrian working class. Likewise, a victory of the “Free” Syrian Army – at this point essentially a front group for al-Qa’ida’s proxies in the region – means a regime of Islamist rule nearly as repressive as Da’esh’s. Dually, a victory of the Ba’athist SAA – the nearly inevitable outcome at this point in the war – spells a continuation of the same vicious police state that’s ruled the country for decades and catalyzed the civil war in the first place. It is true that the situation feels largely hopeless, and the temptation to back one bourgeois force or another on the grounds of “relative progressivism” is understandable, but any of these outcomes spells only further violence against the Syrian proletariat. In the light of this, it should come as no surprise that the YPG, after being cast aside by the US, now hitch their wagon to the imperialism of the Assad regime (and indirectly its great ally, Russian imperialism).15
What, then, is the path forward? We should recall that Marxists do not oppose imperialism only for reasons of humanism, nor even only because imperialist war pits the international working class against each other in horrific slaughter – though of course this is of fundamental importance. More than this, the old slogan that “the main enemy is at home” remains as true today as ever before, and with it the necessity of revolutionary defeatism: agitating against domestic war efforts in an attempt to catalyze revolution. Opposition to war alone is not sufficient. Dock strikes, for instance, are capable of crippling the capitalist militarist machine for a short while; for a recent example see the wave of March dock strikes in Genoa opposing arms shipments to Saudi Arabia and NATO forces in Yemen.16 However, the bourgeois state will inevitably clamp down on such isolated acts and force a return to capitalist order; indeed, opposition to war alone cannot offer any kind of permanent solution. Instead these efforts must be coordinated and organized in unity, oriented not just against the worst symptoms of capitalism but against capitalism itself; in particular, communists must strive to “turn the imperialist war into a class war”. Rather than fall into the Kautskian trap of nominally opposing capitalist war but seeing parliament as a means to fight against it, communists must recognize that liberal democracy can only prolong imperialist atrocities, not end them.
- 11Some on the left might protest the claim that the YPG are committed to establishing a capitalist Kurdish state. That said, the ruling clique of the PYD have made clear that this is their intention: enshrining the rights to private property in the region’s constitution, bringing in American soldiers to forcefully crush opposition strikes and labor unrest, expelling Arabs from conquered territory, and enthusiastically participating in horrendous atrocities with their allies in the SDF. For greater discussion see here leftcom.org.
- 14Leaked emails of Hillary Clinton confirm that US intelligence have suspected Erdoğan of funding Da’esh insurgents for years.