Today we publish the fourth and final part of Fred Weston's series about the horrors which capitalism has inflicted on humanity. In the previous parts of this article we have seen the real face of the capitalist class, both its predatory nature on a global scale and its capacity for violent suppression of any mass popular revolt that challenges its right to rule. Some will say, yes but this was in the past; now the system has become more civilised and humane. Recent history shows that this is utterly false.. (Click here to jump straight to part four)
The barrage of propaganda against Lenin and the Bolsheviks has begun. This year, the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, we will see learned critics working to turn public opinion against the Bolsheviks and what they stood for, in an attempt to bury the truth about what the revolution was really about. The same critics conveniently put to one side the long history of brutal suppression of workers’ revolutions carried out by the class they themselves serve.
Marx wrote that “…capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” (Capital, Volume One, Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist). He was describing the ruthless methods used by the rising bourgeoisie to grab resources and accumulate capital, causing terrible suffering and death in the process.
The violent rise of the bourgeoisie
The bourgeoisie also does not like to be reminded that it came to power through bloody revolution, not through gradual reform. When the old ruling classes, the feudal, landed aristocracies, refused to go, revolution was the only way of moving society forward. But then revolution was in the interests of the rising bourgeoisie.
In the historical bourgeois revolutions, the English Civil War, as it is known – in reality the English Revolution of 1642–1651 – or the famous French Revolution of 1789, we see that the bourgeoisie in order to establish its rule resorted to violent revolution with much bloodshed and death involved. Although we may read articles about these events lamenting this “unfortunate” violence, we do not see the same condemnations that are heaped on the Russian Revolution.
Why is that? The answer is very simple. The English and French revolutions brought to power the bourgeoisie, the same class that rules today. They broke the chains of the old feudal system that was holding back the development of capitalism, a system that was in embryonic form, and laid the basis for an enormous development of the productive forces, of science and technique. With this also came new rights, bourgeois rights of course, but nonetheless an advance on what prevailed under feudalism.
In 1989 in France - and internationally - there were lavish celebrations on the 200th anniversary of the French revolution. Of course, the celebrations ignored the real meaning of 1789. That was more to do with the fear of revolution today. Nonetheless, the event was celebrated, in spite of all the violence, death and bloodshed.
Not so when it comes to the Russian Revolution. And the reason is clear: the Russian Revolution put an end to capitalism and landlordism, it removed from power the hated Tsarist regime and began the process of building a workers’ state. That is the reason why they hate it so much – it gave an example to the workers of the world, an example they could look to and emulate, as mass Communist Parties emerged in many countries and revolution reverberated around the world, from the German Revolution of November 1918 right through to the Spanish Revolution of 1931-37.
It is precisely because Lenin and the Bolsheviks demonstrated that a workers’ revolution was possible, that the workers could come to power and begin the process of transforming society, that so much attention is dedicated to distorting historical truth. It has nothing to do with the use of violence. This is merely used to depict an image of a bloodthirsty, crazed Lenin, a picture that can be used as a scarecrow whenever the question of social revolution is raised as a necessary means of achieving real change in society. It is to frighten radicalised youth and workers away from the Communists, the Marxists.
The White Terror
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 was actually a relatively peaceful event, peaceful in the sense of very few deaths occurring. In the main cities, so overwhelming was the support the Bolsheviks had won by then, that the old regime simply crumbled and offered very little organised resistance. The violence came after the revolution, as it was quickly transformed into Civil War because the old exploiters, the Tsarist landed aristocracy and the capitalists refused to accept the will of the people, which involved the expropriation of the landlords and capitalists. Thus they launched a war against Soviet power. The Bolsheviks had to fight back with everything they had to keep alive the fledgling workers’ state.
The truth is that if the October Revolution had not taken place, the revolutionary workers, peasants and soldiers would have been drowned in blood. Towards the end of August and early September 1917, General Kornilov had amassed his troops in the vicinity of Petrograd. He had prepared his so-called “Savage Division”, experienced fighters from the Caucasus, to enter the city and drown the revolution in blood.
His aim was not to defend “democracy” but to establish a military dictatorship to restore the old order. As the historian Mayer states in his book, The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001): “Bent on restoring the old regime and empire, even if stripped of the Romanov dynasty, the latter [tsarist officers] were as hostile to liberal or socialist democracy as they were to proletarian dictatorship.”
According to some historians, Kornilov ordered that no captives should be taken and even the injured should not be rescued from the battlefields. His defeat at the hands of the Petrograd workers, led by the Bolsheviks, saved the Russian masses from a particularly vicious dictatorship, which would have been a Russian version of fascism.
The White Terror that ensued during the Civil War led to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children being killed, with summary executions of peasants who supported the Bolsheviks. Mayer reports of Kornilov’s threat, after escaping from prison, "the greater the terror, the greater our victories." While he was gathering his forces - before the Red Army was formed - for an all-out counter-revolutionary war, he vowed that his goals must be fulfilled even if it meant "to set fire to half the country and shed the blood of three-quarters of all Russians." Kornilov also promoted anti-Semitic pogroms in an attempt to bring back the old pre-revolutionary filth of the Tsarist regime.
When we say that he wanted the old regime, let us not forget what that regime was. In January 1905 there was the event that went down in history as “Bloody Sunday” [9th January]. A peaceful demonstration of around 140,000 people had gathered outside the Winter Palace to petition the Tsar. The response they received was to be a bitter lesson in the true nature of the Tsar and his regime. Troops opened fire on the unarmed masses, killing hundreds and wounding thousands. That is when the Tsar became known as “Nicholas the Bloody”.
It is this history that explains the hatred of the Russian masses towards the Tsarist regime. And as Lenin wrote from exile in Switzerland at the time, “The working class has received a momentous lesson in civil war: the revolutionary education of the proletariat made more progress in one day than it could have made in months and years of drab, humdrum, wretched existence. The slogan of the heroic St Petersburg proletariat, ‘Death or Freedom!’ is reverberating throughout Russia.”
Had Kornilov been victorious in the Civil War there would have been a far worse “Bloody Sunday”. And what would the bourgeois historians be saying now? No doubt, they would be justifying it as a necessary means of maintaining the established order and little would be said of the “violence and bloodshed”! The reason for that is that it would have been blood spilled in the defence of private property, of the privileges of the elite, of their right to exploit the workers and peasants and to continue the centuries-long suffering of the poor working masses.
Slanderous campaign against Lenin
The Russian Revolution was successful because a party of Marxist cadres had been built beforehand, the Bolshevik Party. Such a party would not have existed if it had not been for Lenin struggling over many years for theoretical clarity, for the basic ideas of Marxism within the young Russian labour movement.
This is not the place to outline the history of the building of the party, but if anyone wishes to deepen their understanding on this question, read Bolshevism – The Road to Revolution by Alan Woods and Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? Lenin struggled all his adult life for the cause of the working class and to put an end to the tyranny of the Tsarist regime. His contribution to Marxism is unquestionable and his writings are a treasure trove of Marxist theory.
It is this that the bourgeoisie for the past one hundred years has wanted to bury under a heap of lies and distortions. This kind of propaganda has nothing to do with establishing historical truth and all to do with a struggle between the classes over the future of the society we live in. The kind of propaganda we can expect to see this year is already easily available.
One example is the 1997 Discovery Channel documentary, in which we see Professor Robert Service attempting to analyse the Russian Revolution by psychoanalysing Lenin. He adds a novel idea, that it was Lenin's fading health that caused him to become impatient and this had direct consequences on how the Russian Revolution unfolded. The ridiculous idea presented here is that Lenin pushed for the party to decide the day of the insurrection, not because it was an objective necessity otherwise the generals would have taken power, but because he was in a hurry “to cram into his revolutionary career as much as possible” so as to see revolution before he died!
We are also told about Lenin’s supposed “violent mood swings”, his putting an end to anything, even listening to music he liked, so that he would not be distracted from revolution. The documentary goes into a lot of personal detail. It is all designed to present Lenin as some kind of psychopath.
However, even this documentary designed to dirty the name of Lenin and the revolution, towards the end cannot avoid showing the immense support that Lenin had among the worker and peasant masses. This is something bourgeois professors cannot relate to, as they are incapable of seeing the world through the eyes of the downtrodden workers and peasants under the Tsarist regime; they cannot understand the immense class hatred that existed in the depths of society.
In another video, Vladimir Lenin documentary - Stunning Documentaries, we have Nina Tumarkin, professor of history at Wellesley College, attempting to analyse Lenin as a child. She describes him as “one of those bossy kids”…, “self-centred…”, but also a “competent and smart child”. The idea, again, is to present an almost inhuman Lenin with the potential to be a “dictator” because he was supposedly a “bossy kid”!
It would require a book to respond to all the slanders against Lenin. We will deal with all this in a series of articles and videos we will publish throughout 2017. Here we will concentrate on the violence of the capitalist class and the brutal methods it has used throughout history to crush worker and peasant revolts.
The Russian Revolution was different from all the other attempted revolutions in one thing: it succeeded where all others failed. And when those revolutions failed, the response of the bourgeoisie was violent to the extreme. When it comes to defending its vital interests, its political system, its profits and privileges, its spheres of influence and its markets, the bourgeoisie is prepared to use any means necessary, as this article will demonstrate.
Churchill determined to use chemical weapons in war against the Bolsheviks
What the mainstream bourgeois historians cannot really admit is that the Russian Revolution succeeded because it had mass support of the workers and peasants. During the civil war that ensued, as the Red Army advanced the land was taken from the landlords and distributed to the peasants. Whenever the White Army took areas, these progressive measures were reversed. That explains why the Red Army advanced in the face of armies that were armed and backed by powerful imperialist countries.
In desperation Churchill ordered the use of chemical weapons against the Bolsheviks. An article that appeared in The Guardian in September 2013, Winston Churchill's shocking use of chemical weapons, explains what happened in 1919: “As a long-term advocate of chemical warfare, he was determined to use them against the Russian Bolsheviks. In the summer of 1919… Churchill planned and executed a sustained chemical attack on northern Russia.”
A new chemical weapon had been developed, the secret “M Device”, capable of delivering a very toxic gas, diphenylaminechloroarsine. The officer in charge of the project, Major General Charles Foulkes, described it as "the most effective chemical weapon ever devised". It caused uncontrollable vomiting, the coughing up of blood and collapse of the victims.
Sir Keith Price, head of chemical warfare production, was convinced it would lead very quickly to the collapse of Bolshevik power in the Soviet Union. At the end of August 1919, several Bolshevik-held villages were bombed, but the weapon proved less effective than Churchill had hoped and very soon its use was brought to an end.
But let us just reflect for a moment. Here we have a British political leader - hailed as a democrat by the same historians who are condemning the violence of the Red Army - who was prepared to use chemical weapons indiscriminately on Russian peasant villages. Again, the contrast is stark to the nth degree. Had the Red Army used such methods they would be shouting about it from the rooftops. But of course, they didn’t!
The massacre of the Paris Commune
If any readers are not convinced that the White Terror would have led to a bloody massacre of the revolution, it is worth looking at what happened to the courageous Communards during the short-lived Paris Commune back in 1871. How many school students are ever taught about what happened in Paris in the months of March, April and May of that year? To pose the question is enough to know what the answer will be. At best it is mentioned as a minor detail in the aftermath of the defeat of Emperor Napoleon III in September 1870 in the Franco-Prussian War.
In reality the Paris Commune was the first time in history that workers had consciously attempted to take over the running of society. If anyone wants to read more on this glorious episode in working class history, they can read Marx’s The Civil War in France, Lenin on the Paris Commune, Lessons of the Commune, and for a detailed account of the events there is Lissagaray’s History of the Paris Commune of 1871.
Once the reactionary troops of the Versailles regime managed to enter Paris, a systematic butchering of Communards began, and according to different sources anything between 18,000 and 20,000 Communards were executed during the Semaine Sanglante ("Bloody Week"), and thousands more were either jailed or went into exile to escape the repression.
Just to give a small idea of what went on in those terrible days for the Parisian working class, it is sufficient to quote one passage from Merriman’s “Massacre: the life and death of the Paris Commune of 1871” (2014):
“Social class could determine life or death. Middle-class Communards were more likely to talk their way out of encounters with Versaillais. Sutter-Laumann survived because he washed carefully, combed his hair, and spoke ‘without a working-class accent in good French’ when stopped by an officer of the Volunteers of the Seine. If those who were stopped spoke the argot of the Parisian street and workplace, execution usually followed. An officer interrogated a man at a barricade on rue Houdon: ‘Who are you?’ ‘A mason’, the man replied. ‘So, now it’s masons who are going to command!’ The officer shot the man dead on the spot. Social stigmatisation led to massacre.”
There are many more passages like this, which show the real face of the French bourgeoisie when faced with the threat of social revolution that could have taken away all their privileges and put an end to their oppressive rule. In their minds such levels of violence were justified. Here again we see that it is not violence per se that is the key element in judging whether it was justified, but the fact that it was used to defend the existing order.
The 1916 Irish Easter Rising
Irish history over the centuries was one of a nation oppressed by British imperialism, with the Irish people treated almost like pack animals, crushed and humiliated by a foreign oppressor propertied class, brutally treated in the name of profit and privilege. The most striking example of this was the Great Famine (1845-52), when around a million poor Irish starved to death and a further million were forced to emigrate. As a result the island lost about one quarter of its population.
We are told in the history books that it was the potato blight, a disease that destroyed the potato crop, that caused this widespread hunger. But this is only a very small part of the truth. The potato blight affected many other countries in the same period across Europe, but it is estimated that only around 100,000 died as a result. So why did so many die in Ireland alone?
One would think that if there was a failure of the potato crop, the Irish peasants could have eaten other crops. In fact, according to many historians, Ireland produced enough other crops and livestock to feed its population. According to Cecil Woodham-Smith, in his work The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849, "Although the potato crop failed, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops to feed the population. But that was a 'money crop' and not a 'food crop' and could not be interfered with." [My emphasis] Ireland’s agricultural production at the time could have fed around eighteen million people, double the then population of the country. For every ship loaded with food produce going into Ireland there were six coming out. This extraction of Ireland's agricultural produce from the island during the famine was ensured by the British army who guarded and suppressed any attempt by the starving Irish masses to get their hands on the "money crop".
Ladies and gentlemen, wearing the latest fashions of the time, eating the best food and drinking the best wine, living in the wealthy quarters of London and other British cities were responsible for the death of a million Irish people. They allowed all this to happen rather than renounce on some of their profits. It was cold blooded murder, but we see no analysis of bloodthirsty psychopaths here, no condemnation, no big media campaigns to expose this historical crime. Of course not, as the people responsible for this crime against humanity were the forebears of today’s ruling class, who continue to defend the system that is capable of such inhumane behaviour.
The death of so many left a mark on the consciousness of the Irish, who had already many times before shown signs of a brewing rebellion deep down in the oppressed layers of society. This was eventually to lead to the armed rebellion of the Easter Rising of 1916 and independence from the yoke of British imperialism, after the War of Independence of 1919-21. This is not the place to go into the reasons as to why Ireland did not achieve full independence and why British imperialism managed to hold on to the six counties in the north. (For a detailed analysis see Alan Woods’ Ireland: Republicanism and Revolution.) For the purposes of this article it is worth simply concentrating on how the leaders of the Easter Rising were dealt with by the British.
The casualties involved in the Rising were close to 500 with over 2600 wounded, mostly civilians. The British forces during the rebellion used artillery, incendiary shells and heavy machine guns in built-up areas, putting at risk the lives of the local population. At the same time they revealed an "inability to discern rebels from civilians". One Royal Irish Regiment officer recalled, "they regarded, not unreasonably, everyone they saw as an enemy, and fired at anything that moved".
The Easter Rising was a courageous stand, but in the given circumstances it was doomed to failure. However, it was to shake the consciousness of the Irish masses, who within a few years would rise against British imperialism. The savagery of the British in dealing with the leaders played a big role in this.
After a farcical trial, sixteen leaders were condemned to death by firing squad. Every day for a few days the executions were carried out. The case of James Connolly stands out, for he was badly wounded and could not stand. He had shrapnel in his chest and his ankle had been shattered. He was carried on a stretcher from the ambulance to the courtyard where he was to be shot. According to some witnesses he attempted to stand, defiant to the very end, but slumped and overbalanced. So they strapped him to a stretcher and placed him in a reclining position tied to a chair in order to shoot him.
This was how the British bourgeoisie dealt with the leaders of the easter Rising who had dared to challenge their right to rule over Ireland, their “first colony”. There was no humanitarian liberalism here; just cold-blooded revenge, with the aim of “giving the Irish a lesson”.
The rise of Italian Fascism
While Russia was in full revolution, there were other movements that threatened the power of the ruling classes in other countries. One of these was in Italy, where in Turin in August 1917 bread riots led by working class women erupted that quickly grew into generalised working class anti-war protests with armed conflicts between workers and state forces. The movement was eventually put down violently, with many workers killed. According to bourgeois sources at least 50 were killed and 200 were wounded, and 822 workers were arrested. Other sources say the deaths could have been as much as 500, as the bodies were very quickly carted away as the authorities attempted to stop news of the event from spreading.
This was merely a harbinger of what was to come. But it was not the first time that the Italian state authorities had fired on and killed protesting workers. There was a long history of violent state repression of worker protests. One of the most famous took place back in 1898 the “Bava-Beccaris massacre”, named after the General who ordered the shootings of workers during widespread food riots in Milan. On May 7, 1898, 60,000 striking workers started marching towards the centre of Milan. General Bava-Beccaris positioned his troops in Piazza del Duomo, the main central square of Milan. As the workers advanced, the General issued the order to fire on the demonstrators, including the use of artillery. Eighty demonstrators were killed and 450 were wounded, according to official statements.
In the aftermath of the First World War in Italy there was a huge wave of worker and peasant struggles. Land occupations were widespread in the south, while in the industrial centres, mainly in the north but not only, the movement culminated in the famous Factory Occupations of September 1920. (See Italy September 1920: The Occupation of the Factories: The Lost Revolution).
This was the Italian Revolution – the culmination of a process that went back decades – and it had put the fear of God into the capitalists and landlords. Once the immediate threat of revolution had passed, the bourgeoisie hit back with a vengeance. Not satisfied with having defeated the movement – see article quoted above for the reasons of this defeat – they backed and financed Mussolini’s Fascists, using them as shock troops against the revolutionary workers.
Mussolini had founded his Fascist Party in 1919, and initially he had only small forces gathered around him. But the defeat of the working class in 1920 prepared the ground for his rise. Suddenly money from wealthy capitalists started raining on Mussolini’s party while the state repressive apparatus turned a blind eye and even supported logistically the raids by fascist death squads against trade unions and socialist organisations and socialist led local authorities. At the peak of this terrorist offensive, in 1922 he organised the famous “march on Rome” when the King appointed him as Prime Minister. The dictatorship was declared later, in 1926.
What fascism meant for the working class
In April 1926 the trade unions were replaced by the Fascist “corporations” under the direct control of the regime. The right to strike was abolished. This was the answer to the revolutionary movement of 1918-20 during which the workers had won important wage increases and the eight hour day. In May 1927 a 10 percent wage cut was imposed followed in October of the same year by further cut, leading to an overall annual reduction in wages of 20 percent. In 1930 the bosses’ association, Confindustria, requested a further lowering of labour costs and the regime imposed another 8 percent cut in wages, and another in 1934. And although, faced with high inflation in the mid to late 1930s, the regime was forced to grant some wage increases, the overall cut in real wages for workers between 1922 and 1943 was 25 percent.
In the process of consolidating their grip on power, the Fascist death squads organised a systematic campaign of burning Communist Party, Socialist Party and Trade Union offices, attacking labour movement meetings and assassinating key worker and peasant leaders. According to Gaetano Salvemini, in his book “Le origini del fascismo in Italia” [The Origins of Fascism in Italy, Feltrinelli, 1979] “About three thousand people lost their lives at the hands of fascists during the two years of civil war”.
The most famous case was that of Giacomo Matteotti, a Socialist Party MP who publicly denounced the 1924 elections as a sham, accusing the government of vote-rigging and fraud. He was assassinated on 10 June of that year. The assassins acted on the direct orders of Mussolini himself, who was by then already the prime minister.
According to Giorgio Candeloro in his classic History of Modern Italy, in the first six months of 1921, overall there were 726 cases of Fascist squads ransacking and destroying offices, party branches and printing presses, including 119 Trade Union headquarters and 141 Communist and Socialist Party branches.
The treatment of Antonio Gramsci
The Communists – together with the Socialists – were in fact those who the regime was particularly interested in crushing. In November 1926 Mussolini moved to destroy the last vestiges of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. On November 8, Antonio Gramsci, the leader of the Italian Communist Party and a Member of Parliament, was arrested. He was eventually put on “trial” in May 1928. During the proceedings the Prosecutor made it very clear why Gramsci was in prison when he said, “We must prevent this brain from functioning for twenty years.” In fact, he was given a twenty year prison sentence!
Gramsci was of a weak constitution, with many health problems. He was sent to serve his sentence in a prison in Turi, near Bari in the South. The journey took twelve gruelling days, with Gramsci tied in chains. He arrived ill, as a fellow prisoner described his condition, “his digestive system was completely upset, he was breathing with great difficulty, and unable to walk more than a step at a time without leaning on someone.” The doctor provided by the regime told Gramsci that “as a good fascist” he would like nothing better than to see him dead. In prison Gramsci’s health deteriorated rapidly. He started coughing up blood and was in effect slowly dying. His only chance of survival would have been to be released from prison and to live in better conditions. Eventually, after years of ordeal, he was allowed to move to a clinic south of Rome, but under heavy police surveillance. But the move was too late and on 27 April 1937 he died. Mussolini had achieved his goal, not just silencing Gramsci for twenty years but forever.
After the initial phase of the consolidation of the Fascist regime, after having killing 3000 socialist and communist workers, the regime resorted to a relatively small number of executions. According to figures provided by ANPI (National Association of Italian Partisans), 42 dissidents were shot after being sentenced by the Fascist Special Tribunal after 1926. In this period, the regime used prison and internal exile against the anti-fascists, affecting thousands of people and dislocating the structures of the anti-fascist parties. A total of 28,000 years of imprisonment was meted out to anti-fascist dissidents.
It was in 1938, with the introduction of the Racial Laws in November of that year, that mass killings were once again being prepared. These laws were introduced specifically against Jews as a gesture to Hitler. Thus, during the Second World War, began the internment and deportation of Jews to the Nazi death camps on a large scale. 45,000 were deported to Germany to the concentration camps, 15,000 of whom never returned, mostly Jews, but also political oppositionists.
After the military coup that deposed Mussolini, the Fascist regime was reconstituted under German occupation, known as the “Repubblica di Salo’”. This regime, in collaboration with the Nazis, carried out terrible torture and killings in its war against the anti-fascist partisan movement that emerged in that period. We should not forget the courageous 110,000 men and women who died fighting in the anti-fascist Partisan units in Italy and other countries. To all this should also be added the 640,000 Italian soldiers who were interned by the Nazis after Italy surrendered in 1943, of which 40,000 died.
Fascism took its toll also outside of Italy. Mussolini’s vainglorious attempt to build an Italian Empire claimed the lives of 80,000 Libyans and 700,000 Ethiopians who were killed when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1936, many dying atrociously killed by nerve gas.
This is what the Italian bourgeoisie was prepared to support in order to destroy the Italian labour movement, wading through the blood of thousands of people, to maintain their power and privileges.
Churchill, American Ambassador, the Pope… all supported Mussolini
What was the reaction of the “democratic west” to all this? Winston Churchill, who was later to be presented as a “champion of democracy and freedom” during the Second World War, said the following to Mussolini in a press conference in Rome in January 1927: “If I had been an Italian, I am sure I would have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.” (quoted in Churchill: A Life, 1992, by Martin Gilbert).
The fact that Churchill later came into conflict with Mussolini was not about the struggle for democracy at all. It was due to the fact that Italy eventually sided with Hitler and threatened Britain’s vital interests. But in his crushing of the Italian working class, Churchill fully backed Mussolini.
That was the approach of a leading British bourgeois politician, but what was the view of the US leaders? In 1928 an English translation of Mussolini’s autobiography was published in New York. The Foreword to the book was written by the former US ambassador to Italy (from May 1921 to February 1924), Richard Washburn Child. It makes interesting reading. It was written long before Mussolini decided to throw his lot in with Hitler in the Second World War.
The following sentences taken from the Foreword suffice to indicate where the Ambassador of the “democratic” United States stood:
“…I knew well the man who now, at last, has written characteristically, directly and simply of that self for which I have a deep affection… In our time it may be shrewdly forecast that no man will exhibit dimensions of permanent greatness equal to those of Mussolini… I knew him before the world at large, outside of Italy, had ever heard of him… The first time I ever saw him he came to my residence sometime before the march on Rome… the Duce is now the greatest figure of this sphere and time.”
In Richard Washburn Child’s memoir A Diplomat looks at Europe (1925), there is a chapter on Mussolini which is full of praise for the Fascists, and he clearly sees them as saviours of Italy and a bulwark against the threat of Communism.
And what about the Catholic Church? Pius XI was viscerally anti-Communist. “We have many interests to protect,” the Pope declared, soon after Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922. Mussolini leaned on the Pope to consolidate his power and achieve his political goals. A mythology was later built up by the official Catholic hierarchy about the Church having combatted Fascism. While it is true that there were some local priests who sided with the common people, the Vatican under Pius XI played an important role in helping Mussolini tighten his grip on power. Mussolini showed his gratitude when he restored many of the privileges the Church had lost when he signed the Lateran Pacts in 1929.
Thus we see how a bourgeois “democratic” member of the “mother of all parliaments”, a US diplomat and the leader of the Catholic Church had no qualms in supporting a bloody regime, responsible for the deaths of so many, simply because this was in their material interests. The same people attacked the Bolsheviks for their violence, again, not for the violence per se, but because it was revolutionary violence carried out in the defence of workers and peasants who were removing capitalists and landlords from power. We see how these people use and condone violence when it is in defence of private property. Thus barbarism is transformed into an idyllic crusade.
The 1927 massacre of Chinese Communists
The 1925-27 Chinese revolution was another moment in history when workers attempted to take their destiny into their own hands. The reasons for its failure were analysed in detail by Leon Trotsky, (See Leon Trotsky’s Collected Writings On China). The defeat of the revolution, again, led to a terrible bloodbath with tens of thousands of communist workers being killed.
Throughout 1927 and 1928 a series of massacres took place, the first in Shanghai in March/April 1927. Thousands of activists were massacred. In May the Kuomintang carried out another massacre in Changsha, when some 10,000 communists were killed. Between April and December 1927, it is estimated that 38,000 people were executed and many more were imprisoned. Between January and August 1928, over 27,000 were sentenced to death. By 1930, the Chinese Communist Party had estimated that around 140,000 had been murdered or had died while in prison. And in 1931, a further 38,000 were executed.
In his “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution”, written in 1938, Harold R. Isaacs gives the following information on the numbers killed:
“No one knows how many have died under the scourge of Kuomintang terror. No one knows how many men and women, boys and girls, have been mutilated, tortured, imprisoned, and killed during the past decade of Kuomintang rule. It is known only that there have been thousands, scores of thousands, slaughtered and maimed during mass butcheries in the countryside and in the cities, in addition to the victims of the day-to-day manhunts carried on unremittingly, year after year. No one has ever known exactly how many political prisoners choked in stinking jails from one end of the land to the other, or how many of them died of disease or on the rack.
“For the record there are only partial estimates and incomplete figures culled from official announcements and from the daily Press. From April to December, 1927, according to one investigation, there were 37,985 known dead and 32,316 known political prisoners. Between January and August, 1928, 27,699 were formally condemned to death and more than 17,000 were imprisoned. At the end of 1930 the Chinese Red Aid estimated that a total of 140,000 had been killed or died in prison. In 1931 a study of available figures for cities of six provinces established that 38,778 had been executed as enemies of the regime. From 1932 to 1936 the thousands who were killed or filled the prisons were mainly those who in one way or another challenged the contemptible capitulation of Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang to Japanese imperialism, or who tried to organize resistance to the imperialist invasion of Chinese territory, the seizure of Manchuria and a part of North China. Chiang Kai-shek adopted a policy of “non-resistance” to the imperialist invasion while he conducted a merciless war of extermination against insurgent peasants in Central China, killing thousands and laying waste villages and fields in the provinces south of the Yangtze.” (Chapter XVIII. Fruits of Defeat)
What methods did Chiang's forces use in crushing the Communists? The French writer André Malraux wrote his novel, Man’s Estate (La condition humaine), based on his knowledge of the Chinese Revolution and the bloody aftermath in 1927. In the final part of the book he describes a scene where Communists have been gathered ready for execution:
“In the great hall of the prison… two hundred wounded Communists waited for someone to come and finish them off… They all lay flat on the floor. Many groaned, and there was an extraordinary regularity about their groaning.”
Two of the main characters in the book, Communists, Katow, a Russian, and Kyo, a Chinese, end up in the prison only to discover that this is where they keep the prisoners before torturing them and one of the other prisoners informs Katow that, “They don’t shoot them, they fling them alive into the furnace of the locomotive… Then that’s that – they blow the whistle…”
The prisoners are left there awaiting their fate, watching as groups of prisoners are taken out and shortly afterwards they hear the whistle. Although this is a novel, it portrays graphically the brutality of Chiang's forces.
All this was done with the backing of all the imperialist powers, from the US to the British to the French. Again, both the western imperialist and the local landlords and bourgeois saw all this killing as a necessity to maintain their rule over the Chinese masses.
The role of Stalin
The defeat of the Chinese Revolution was made even worse by the confusion generated among the Chinese communists because of the mistakes and betrayals of the Communist International leadership under the rising influence of Stalin. It is worth noting here what the position of Stalin had been towards Chiang Kai Shek. Chiang’s party, the Kuomintang was accepted as a sympathising section of the Communist International early in 1926 – barely one year before Chiang would organise a bloodbath of Chinese communists – and this decision was later approved by the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). The sole dissenting voice was that of Leon Trotsky who voted against. The Kuomintang was even allowed to send “fraternal delegates” to meetings of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI).
This explains why even in 1927 just prior to the beginning of the massacres, the workers of Shanghai were told that the entry of Chiang's armed forces marked the hour of liberation! Welcoming parties were even organised for the Kuomintang forces. This was also reflected in the press of various Communist Parties. This is how Harold R. Isaacs describes the situation:
“A few days before the insurrection Rote Fahne, central organ of the German Communist Party, featured a photo of Chiang Kai-shek, describing him as the heroic leader of the ‘revolutionary war council’ of the Kuomintang. (Rote Fahne, Berlin, March 17, 1927.) A similar photo appeared in L’Humanité, French Communist daily, on March 23, with a report of a great mass meeting at which Chiang’s entry into Shanghai was greeted as the inauguration of ‘the Chinese Commune,’ opening ‘a new stage in world revolution.’ An editorial spoke of the Cantonese victory as the ‘liberation of Shanghai,’ which meant ‘the beginning of liberation for the workers of the world.’ (L’Humanité, March 23, 1927)”
Thus, in the killings that followed the defeat of the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution, the Stalinists hold heavy responsibility, as they created the illusion that Chiang was a “saviour”, thus politically disarming the Chinese workers and leaving them unprepared for what was about to happen.
Japan invades but Chiang’s priority is to destroy the Communists
Much has been said about the millions that died in the fighting over many years in China, but the responsibility for this lies with the Chinese capitalists and landlords and the imperialists whose interests they served. They were not prepared to give up their land and their profits. The Chinese bourgeois considered it more important to fight the Communists than the invading Japanese. This was shown repeatedly during the Japanese invasion. This is not the first time in history that we have seen a ruling class having more in common with the enemy invaders than with their own people!
After consolidating his grip on power in 1927, Chiang concentrated his attention on exterminating the Communists. This marked the origin of what was later to be known as the Long March, as the Communists fled the cities and reorganised as a guerrilla army in remote areas. Within a few years, in 1931, the Japanese invaded China, taking Manchuria, and then deployed troops in Central China in the province close to Beijing. Instead of concentrating his forces against the Japanese, Chiang positioned the bulk of his forces near Yenan, as his main objective was to destroy the Communist forces.
In his book “Tea That Burns: A Family Memoir of Chinatown”, Bruce Hall points out the brutal methods used by the advancing Japanese forces:
“In July of 1937, the Japanese invade and occupy Peking, Shanghai and Tianjin, while in Nanking they engage in an orgy of violence that shocks the entire world. In a period of only six to eight weeks some 300,000 of Nanking's civilian residents are slaughtered by methods of appalling cruelty. Japanese soldiers stage beheading contests, people are flayed alive. Others are hanged by their tongues, and children are tortured to death with needles. In addition, an estimated 20,000 women are raped—many by their own fathers or sons at the point of Japanese bayonets—before the entire families are murdered and their bodies mutilated. And all this without a ﬁght from Chiang Kai-shek's army. Which he mysteriously deems too ill-equipped even to attempt to stop his Japanese foe.” (page 215) [My emphasis]
As we can see, there was a de facto alliance between Chiang and the Japanese imperialists, for the propertied class that Chiang represented had more in common with the Japanese capitalists than with Chinese workers and peasants.
The most powerful and organised working class in Europe in the 1920s was the German. The German workers rose several times in an attempt to carry out revolution. In November 1918 the power was their for the taking and they could easily have moved to set up a workers’ state, but were thwarted by their own leaders. This was to have tragic consequences for the German workers in the rise of the Nazis. A few years later the Spanish workers rose in a valiant attempt to stop the spread of fascism, but were also crushed brutally.
The rise of Hitler
For a full account and analysis of the events that unfolded in Germany in this period see Germany: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution by Rob Sewell. Here we will deal with the counter-revolutionary violence used to crush the German working class.
The counter-revolutionary reaction to the 1918 German revolution was ruthless. In response to the famous Spartacist Uprising of January 1919 an offensive was launched, known as the “White Terror”. In Berlin in January, in putting down the Spartacist resistance, according to official figures, 156 workers were killed and hundreds more were wounded. In the process the two outstanding revolutionary leaders of the German working class, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, were arrested by Freikorps officers. Liebknecht was summarily shot and Rosa Luxemburg’s head was smashed in by an officer's rifle butt and her body was thrown into a canal.
This was just the beginning. The class struggle in Germany was not over and the working class moved repeatedly, but eventually succumbed to the Nazi counter-revolution. Smashing the power of the organised working class became the key aim of the German ruling class. As in Italy, the German bourgeoisie abandoned any pretence of bourgeois democracy and eventually handed power to the madmen of Hitler.
The consequence of all this are known to all, with the holocaust during which over eleven million people perished (some later studies indicate that the number may have been much higher). The bulk of these were Jews, around six million, but there were also disabled people, homosexuals and lesbians, gypsies and others. However, the fact that the German Communists were among the first to end up in the concentration camps is often skipped over.
In 1933 the Chief of Police of Munich issued a press statement announcing the opening of the first official concentration camp in Dachau which could hold 5,000 people. The statement made it clear that “All Communists and—where necessary—Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated here…” Most of the early victims were communists and labour movement activists!
When the Nazis occupied other countries, as they advanced, communists, socialists and anarchists were among the first to be arrested and many were summarily executed. This was the case with Spanish Republicans who had escaped to France from Franco’s bloody counter-revolution. When France was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940, around 7,000 Spaniards who had fought bravely in the Civil War were rounded up and later died in the Nazi concentration camps.
The rise of Hitler, of course, prepared the ground for the Second World War in which over 55 million people lost their lives globally, of which around 25 million in the Soviet Union alone. This last figure highlights the fact that the Nazi regime came to power not just to destroy the German labour movement, with its trade union and political organisations, but also to strike at the Soviet Union and destroy what remained of the Russian Revolution in spite of the monstrous Stalinist degeneration, the state-owned, planned economy.
Such was the crisis of world capitalism, which expressed itself in an acute manner in Germany, that socialist revolution became a concrete possibility, as the history of that period shows. Faced with the threat of being overthrown by the German workers, in the end the ruling class was prepared to unleash the barbarism of the Nazis. The reason for this was that they needed a tool that could smash the millions strong labour movement. That was the essence of Nazism.
Attitude of the British ruling class towards Hitler
Today, all the “democratic” bourgeois politicians, the mainstream media, the education system, the very Establishment itself, express horror at the mere mention of what happened in Germany. And any ordinary person – except for the tiny minority of today’s fascists – is naturally horrified at what happened. But what was the position at the time Hitler came to power?
So long as Hitler did not threaten the vital interests of British imperialism, it is clear that the British ruling class saw the rise of the Nazi regime as preferable to the German working class coming to power. There was sympathy towards the Nazis – at least up to the mid-1930s – among important sections of the British establishment, even within the Royal family itself.
As Frank McDonough, in his book, The Gestapo: The Myth and Reality of Hitler's Secret Police published in 2015, said in an interview with The Royalist: “The British 'Establishment', including key figures in the aristocracy, the press were keen supporters of Hitler up until the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Few were supporters of Nazism, but they admired Hitler and felt he offered the best means of preventing the spread of communism. They tended to turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism and the attacks Hitler made on communists, socialists, and other internal opponents.” [My emphasis]
Viscount Rothermere was an example of Establishment figures who admired Hitler. At that time he owned both the Mail and the Mirror. In January 1934, he had articles published in the two papers. In the Mail the headline of the article was "Hurrah for the Blackshirts", while in the Mirror it was "Give the Blackshirts a helping hand." Here he was backing Mosley’s attempt to replicate the Nazi party in Britain, which he later had to drop. Nonetheless, he went far further than many other establishment figures, meeting and corresponding directly with Hitler, even congratulating him when he annexed Czechoslovakia.
When Neville Henderson was made ambassador to Germany in May 1937, he wrote in The Times, “far too many people have an erroneous conception of what the National Socialist regime really stands for. Otherwise they would lay less stress on Nazi dictatorship and much more emphasis on the great social experiment which is being tried out.”
Lord Halifax as a representative of the British government visited Hitler in November 1937 and told him that people in Britain who criticised the Nazis, such as the leaders of the Labour Party, “were not fully informed' of the “great services” that Hitler had done... “by preventing the entry of communism” into Germany, as this blocked its [communism’s] “passage further west.”
This last quote puts the position of the British capitalist class in a nutshell. It was preferable to unleash the madmen of Hitler on the German working class than to see Communism spreading westwards. Let us not forget that it was precisely the defeat of the German revolution that isolated the Soviet Union, preparing thus the material conditions for the degeneration of the workers’ state and the rise of the monster of Stalinism. Had the revolution spread to Germany, the isolation of the Soviet Union would have been broken and with the aid of the German working class, the Soviet workers could have thrown off the yolk of Stalinism and moved towards a genuine, democratic, workers’ state and the revolution would have spread throughout Europe. The fate of the Spanish revolution would have been very different.
In essence it would have meant the beginning of worldwide revolution and the downfall of capitalism globally. That is why the British elite looked with sympathy on Hitler and the Nazis in the early days of the regime. The only true anti-fascists in Britain were to be found on the left, in the trade unions, in the Independent Labour Party, Labour Party and other left forces. (This was confirmed later when many of them volunteered to go to Spain and help in the fighting against Franco.)
Those same bourgeois who looked with pleasure on the “great social experiment” of the Nazis, i.e. the butchering of hundreds of thousands, would dedicate volumes to expressing their “horror” at the violence of the Bolsheviks. Their horror was not at the violence, but at the expropriation of the capitalists and landlords!
Spanish Civil War
In the revolutions that erupted between 1917 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the Spanish Revolution stands out as the last stand of the European working class in its attempt to roll back the wave of counter-revolution that had begun with the defeat of the Italian working class in 1922. For a succinct analysis of the tumultuous events that unfolded in Spain in the 1930s read Ted Grant’s The Spanish Revolution 1931-37 and for a lengthier analysis read Trotsky’s Collected Writings on The Spanish Revolution.
In the Spanish Revolution we saw once again the nefarious role of both the reformism of social democracy and Stalinism, which in the name of its two-stage theory and Popular Frontism contributed to the derailing of the revolution. For a few years, however, the Spanish proletariat put up a heroic fight as it desperately tried to find the road to successful revolution.
While the Spanish workers and peasants were being fed the line of the need to form an alliance with the so-called “progressive bourgeoisie”, Leon Trotsky had warned right from the beginning of the consequences of such a policy and in 1939 he commented:
“One of the most tragic chapters of modern history is now drawing to its conclusion in Spain. On Franco’s side there is neither a staunch army nor popular support. There is only the greed of proprietors ready to drown in blood three-fourths of the population if only to maintain their rule over the remaining one-fourth. However, this cannibalistic ferocity is not enough to win a victory over the heroic Spanish proletariat. Franco needed help from the opposite side of the battlefront. And he obtained this aid. His chief assistant was and still is Stalin, the gravedigger of the Bolshevik Party and the proletarian revolution. The fall of the great proletarian capital, Barcelona, comes as direct retribution for the massacre of the uprising of the Barcelona proletariat in May 1937.
“Insignificant as Franco himself is, however miserable his clique of adventurists, without honour, without conscience, and without military talents, Franco’s great superiority lies in this, that he has a clear and definite programme: to safeguard and stabilize capitalist property, the rule of the exploiters, and the domination of the church; and to restore the monarchy.
“The possessing classes of all capitalist countries – whether fascist or democratic – proved, in the nature of things, to be on Franco’s side. The Spanish bourgeoisie has gone completely over to Franco’s camp.” (Leon Trotsky, The Tragedy of Spain, January 1939)
The final act of the Spanish Civil War took place at the end of March to early April 1939. On 28 March the Nationalists took Madrid and the Civil War finally came to an end on 1 April, with Franco victorious. Up to half a million people are estimated to have died. After Franco’s victory something between 250,000 and 500,000 Republican refugees fled the country and went into exile abroad. Martial law was declared and remained in effect until 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Republicans were imprisoned. And in the years 1939-43 nearly 200,000 were summarily executed or killed.
In his Time to exorcise the ghost of Franco, Jorge Martin outlines the extent of the repression:
“The exact figures are disputed, but it is calculated that between 80 and 100,000 people were killed by the fascists during the war in a campaign of systematic repression town by town, city by city, and a further 50,000 were executed by firing squads in the immediate aftermath. Up to half a million were detained in concentration camps after the end of the war in 1939. Tens of thousands of them were used as forced labour both in public works projects as well as in private companies and in the estates of landowners.
“The most glaring example is the huge fascist monument of the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), in El Escorial, marking those fallen in Franco’s “Glorious Crusade”, presided over by an enormous 150 metre tall cross. This was built mostly by forced labour, with many dying in the process. The monument still stands today, without the slightest modification of its meaning and symbology. Both Francisco Franco and founder of the Spanish Falange fascist party Primo de Rivera are buried here.
“Hundreds of thousands left the country as exiles and refugees during and after the war, probably up to half a million. Many of them were confined in camps in the South of France with about 12,000 being later sent to Nazi concentration camps.
“About 30,000 children were taken into custody by the Franco regime, some from Republican mothers who were jailed and others whose parents had died in the war or been executed afterwards. Many were given in adoption to Franco supporting families.”
The slaughter of the 4000 at Badajoz
An example of the brutality of Franco’s forces is provided by the Chicago Tribune in an article that appeared in the August 30, 1936 edition. The original is available here and a more easily accessible text version is available here: “Slaughter of 4,000 at Badajoz, 'City of Horrors,' Is Told by Tribune Man”. In introducing his article, the author writes:
“I have come from Badajoz, several miles away in Spain. I have been up on the roof to look back. There was a fire. They are burning bodies. Four thousand men and women have died at Badajoz since Gen. Francisco Franco's rebel Foreign Legionnaires and Moors climbed over the bodies of their own dead through its many times blood drenched walls. (…) I tried to sleep. But you can’t sleep on a soiled and lumpy bed in a room at the temperature of a Turkish bath, with mosquitoes and bedbugs tormenting you, and with memories of what you have seen tormenting you, with the smell of blood in your very hair, and with a woman sobbing in the room next door.”
He explains that, “thousands of republican, socialist, and communist militiamen were butchered after the fall of Badajoz for the crime of defending their republic against the onslaught of the generals and the landowners.”
This took place in the Badajoz Bullring, and the author continues:
“They were young, mostly peasants in blue blouses, mechanics in jumpers, ‘The Reds.’ They are still being rounded up. At 4 o’clock in the morning they were out into the ring through the gate by which the initial parade of the bullfight enters. There machine guns awaited them.
“After the first night the blood was supposed to be palm deep on the far side of the ring. I don't doubt it. Eighteen hundred men – there were women, too – were mowed down there in some 12 hours. There is more blood than you would think in 1,800 bodies.”
The numbers killed could be anything between 2000 and 4000. The exact number is not known as bodies were hurriedly taken in trucks to the local cemetery and burned, but something like 10% of the town’s population was killed!
The Málaga-Almería Massacre
What happened in Malaga in February 1937 is yet another example of the ruthless butchery carried out by the forces of Franco, this time involving some of the troops sent by Mussolini to aid in crushing the revolution, and German and Italian warplanes. There are many accounts of this event, but I will provide one here, which I quote fully, “The Crime on the Road Malaga-Almeira”, written by a Canadian doctor, Norman Bethune, who, with a team of medical staff, came to the aid of the fleeing refugees in an ambulance. Excuse the length of the quote, but it would not do justice to the text to take only one fragment.
This is what doctor Bethune wrote in 1937:
“The evacuation en masse of the civilian population of Malaga started on Sunday Feb. 7. Twenty-five thousand German, Italian and Moorish troops entered the town on Monday morning the eighth. Tanks, submarines, warships, airplanes combined to smash the defenses of the city held by a small heroic band of Spanish troops without tanks, airplanes or support. The so-called Nationalists entered, as they have entered every captured village and city in Spain, what was practically a deserted town.
“Now imagine one hundred and fifty thousand men women and children setting out for safety to the town situated over a hundred miles away. There is only one road they can take. There is no other way of escape. This road, bordered on one side by the high Sierra Nevada mountains and on the other by the sea, is cut into the side of the cliffs and climbs up and down from sea-level to over 500 feet. The city they must reach is Almeria, and it is over two hundred kilometers away. A strong, healthy young man can walk on foot forty or fifty kilometers a day. The journey these women children and old people must face will take five days and five nights at least. There will be no food to be found in the villages, no trains, no buses to transport them. They must walk and as they walked they staggered and stumbled with cut, bruised feet along that flint, white road the fascists bombed them from the air and fired at them from their ships at sea.
“Now, what I want to tell you is what I saw myself of this forced march — the largest, most terrible evacuation of a city in modern times. We had arrived in Almeria at five o’clock on Wednesday the tenth with a refrigeration truckload of preserved blood from Barcelona. Our intention was to proceed to Malaga to give blood transfusions to wounded. In Almeria we heard for the first time that the town had fallen and were warned to go no farther as no one knew where the frontline now was but everyone was sure that the town of Motril had also fallen. We thought it important to proceed and discover how the evacuation of the wounded was proceeding. We set out at six o'clock in the evening along the Malaga road and a few miles on we met the head of the piteous procession. Here were the strong with all their goods on donkeys, mules and horses. We passed them, and the farther we went the more pitiful the sights became. Thousands of children, we counted five thousand under ten years of age, and at least one thousand of them barefoot and many of them clad only in a single garment. They were slung over their mother's shoulders or clung to her hands. Here a father staggered along with two children of one and two years of age on his back in addition to carrying pots and pans or some treasured possession. The incessant stream of people became so dense we could barely force the car through them. At eighty eight kilometers from Almeria they beseeched us to go no farther, that the fascists were just behind. By this time we had passed so many distressed women and children that we thought it best to turn back and start transporting the worst cases to safety. It was difficult to choose which to take. Our car was besieged by a mob of frantic mothers and fathers who with tired outstretched arms held up to us their children, their eyes and faces swollen and congested by four days of sun and dust.
“’Take this one.’ ‘See this child.’ ‘This one is wounded.’ Children with bloodstained rags wrapped around their arms and legs, children without shoes, their feet swollen to twice their size crying helplessly from pain, hunger and fatigue. Two hundred kilometers of misery. Imagine four days and four nights, hiding by day in the hills as the fascist barbarians pursued them by plane, walking by night packed in a solid stream men, women, children, mules, donkeys, goats, crying out the names of their separated relatives, lost in the mob. How could we chose between taking a child dying of dysentery or a mother silently watching us with great sunken eyes carrying against her open breast her child born on the road two days ago. She had stopped walking for ten hours only. Here was a woman of sixty unable to stagger another step, her gigantic swollen legs with their open varicose ulcers bleeding into her cut linen sandals. Many old people simply gave up the struggle, lay down by the side of the road and waited for death.
“We first decided to take only children and mothers. Then the separation between father and child, husband and wife became too cruel to bear. We finished by transporting families with the largest number of young children and the solitary children of which there were hundreds without parents. We carried thirty to forty people a trip for the next three days and nights back to Almeria to the hospital of the Socorro Rojo Internacional where they received medical attention, food and clothing. The tireless devotion of Hazen Sise and Thomas Worsley, drivers of the truck, saved many lives. In turn they drove back and forth day and night sleeping out on the open road between shifts with no food except dry bread and oranges.
“And now comes the final barbarism. Not content with bombing and shelling this procession of unarmed peasants on this long road, but on the evening of the 12th when the little seaport of Almeria was completely filled with refugees, its population swollen to double its size, when forty thousand exhausted people had reached a haven of what they thought was safety, we were heavily bombed by German and Italian fascist airplanes. The siren alarm sounded thirty seconds before the first bomb fell. These planes made no effort to hit the government battleship in the harbor or bomb the barracks. They deliberately dropped ten great bombs in the very center of the town where on the main street were sleeping huddled together on the pavement so closely that a car could pass only with difficulty, the exhausted refugees. After the planes had passed I picked up in my arms three dead children from the pavement in front of the Provincial Committee for the Evacuation of Refugees where they had been standing in a great queue waiting for a cupful of preserved milk and a handful of dry bread, the only food some of them had for days. The street was a shambles of the dead and dying, lit only by the orange glare of burning buildings. In the darkness the moans of the wounded children, shrieks of agonized mothers, the curses of the men rose in a massed cry higher and higher to a pitch of intolerable intensity. One's body felt as heavy as the dead themselves, but empty and hollow, and in one's brain burned a bright flame of hate. That night were murdered fifty civilians and an additional fifty were wounded. There were two soldiers killed.
“Now, what was the crime that these unarmed civilians had committed to be murdered in this bloody manner? Their only crime was that they had voted to elect a government of the people, committed to the most moderate alleviation of the crushing burden of centuries of the greed of capitalism. The question has been raised: why did they not stay in Malaga and await the entrance of the fascists? They knew what would happen to them. They knew what would happen to their men and women as had happened so many times before in other captured towns. Every male between the age of 15 and 60 who could not prove that he had not by force been made to assist the government would immediately be shot. And it is this knowledge that has concentrated two-thirds of the entire population of Spain in one half the country and that still, held by the republic.” (The crime on the road Malaga-Almeria)
[For anyone who wants to read further on this event, eyewitness accounts of the same events are available in Spanish at La voz de la desbandá: los supervivientes de la Carretera Málaga-Almería. Another account, with photos and videos, in Spanish, is available at 80 aniversario: La carretera Málaga-Almería, la masacre silenciada de la Guerra Civil. In English, Dialogue with Death - The Journal of a Prisoner of the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War available from The University of Chicago Press, also gives an insight into the situation in malaga after it was taken by Franco's’ troops.]
According to Professors at the University of Malaga “over 5,000 people died on the road, based on oral histories collected, plus burial records in Salamanca, and Málaga archives.”
Catholic Church on the side of the butchers
In the face of such mass scale butchery, what was the position of the Catholic Church? To begin with, as early as August 1938 the Vatican officially recognised the Franco's regime, even before the Republic had been totally crushed. Throughout the Civil War the Catholic hierarchy had de facto backed Franco.
For example, the Bishop of Pamplona declared the war a “religious crusade” on 15 August 1936, identifying Franco’s forces as “crusaders”. The following month, in September 1936, the Archbishop Enrique Pla y Deniel, declared the war to be a crusade “for the defence of Christian civilisation”. A couple of months later, Cardinal Isidro Gomá, again declared the war to be a religious crusade in defence of Catholicism.
“Even before the war ended the repressive nature of Franco’s regime was becoming apparent; and yet the bishops, through their silence, legitimized the brutal retaliations carried out against the enemies of the Crusade. There was no protest at the mass executions of supporters of the Republic, or of the degrading treatment meted out to their female relatives.
“Cardinal Gomá, in a report to the Vatican Secretary of State as early as August 1936, acknowledged that perhaps some reproach should be made to the Falange for the severity of the reprisals, but no such reproach was ever made. (…)
“On 29 May 1939, Franco presented his sword to Cardinal Gomá in the Church of Santa Bárbara, Madrid; a symbolic representation of the victory shared by State and Church.” [My emphasis] [Source]
The “Non-Intervention Committee”
It is significant that while Mussolini and Hitler helped Franco by sending soldiers and weapons, the support of the “bourgeois democracies” for the Republic was far less concrete. They in fact promoted a so-called “Non-Intervention Committee”, signed by 27 countries including Britain, France, the Soviet Union, Germany, and Italy, whose sole purpose was to stop aid reaching the Republic – while the Nazis and Fascists ignored the agreement and went ahead with military intervention.
Mussolini, during the first three months of the Non-Intervention Agreement sent 90 Italian aircraft to help Franco. To this was added 2,500 tons of bombs, 500 cannons, 700 mortars, 12,000 machine-guns, 50 whippet tanks and 3,800 motor vehicles, and around 50,000 regular troops and 30,000 fascist militiamen.
Hitler provided the infamous Condor Legion, placed under the direct command of Franco himself, with up to 12,000 men, backed by bomber planes that were used during the Civil War. The famous painting by Pablo Picasso, “Guernica”, in response to the bombing by German and Italian warplanes of Guernica, a village in the Basque Country, is a reminder of what really happened.
Writing on the outbreak of civil war in Spain in the Evening Standard on 10 August 1936, Churchill stated the following: “It is of the utmost consequence that France and Britain should act together in observing the strictest neutrality themselves and endeavouring to induce it in others. Even if Russian money is thrown in on the one side, or Italian and German encouragement is given to the other, the safety of France and England requires absolute neutrality and non-intervention by them.”
The League of Nations – the precursor to today’s United Nations and equally impotent – condemned the intervention of Germany and Italy, but continued to put forward non-intervention and “mediation”. The reason for this is clear: all the main bourgeois powers saw in the possible victory of the Republic the rise of the revolutionary working class of Spain. Objectively speaking, they all had an interest in the crushing of the Spanish Revolution.
In the face of the butchery carried out by Franco, the “democracies”, i.e. the ruling classes of Europe, together with the Church, did not lift a finger, for to do so would mean facilitating the task of the Spanish working class, which was the overthrow of capitalism. Thus, for the ladies and gentlemen sitting in comfort and luxury in Paris, London and other capitals of Europe, the regime of terror unleashed by Franco was preferable to any government under which the workers could have taken power, for had this happened, the wave of revolution that had been blocked by the rise of Hitler in 1933, could once again have swept across Europe.
With the Spanish Revolution clearly defeated, on 27th February 1939, the British government had no problem in recognising Franco as the new ruler of Spain. The defeat of the Spanish Revolution, however, was not a defeat for the Spanish workers alone. It was a defeat for the workers of the world, as once the last bastion of workers’ struggles had been snuffed out, the national ruling classes of Europe could turn to more pressing business, a war to decide who dominated the world markets, the Second World War.
The Second World War ended with the collapse of the Nazi regime, but Franco did not forget the friends that had helped in his hour of need. Under Franco, Spain was to provide asylum for thousands of Nazis fleeing arrest and trial.
Compare this behaviour to what the capitalist powers did after the Russian Revolution. There was no “Non-Intervention Committee” then! On the contrary, armies attacked the Soviet Union from all directions. Here we see the priorities of the capitalist class. In the Soviet Union they intervened because their vital material interests were at risk, whereas in Spain their vital interests were better served by not intervening and allowing Franco to come to power, even if this meant hundreds of thousands butchered.
The violence of the bourgeoisie throughout history has not been confined solely to the way it has reacted to attempts at revolution by the downtrodden masses. It was also applied systematically in its methods of empire building.
The brutal nature of the British Empire
The British establishment would like us believe that in colonising half the planet they had a “civilising” influence. The truth is rather different. They brutally oppressed the peoples they colonised, exploited them, robbed them of their resources and left hunger, death and deprivation in their wake. The history of the British Empire is one of many brutalities, but let us look at some of the most famous cases.
In 2007, The Guardian published a review of “In War of Civilisations: India AD 1857”, by Amaresh Misra. The book is about the famous Indian Mutiny of 1857 “acknowledged to have been the greatest challenge to any European power in the 19th century”. The article continues, “the British pursued a murderous decade-long campaign to wipe out millions of people who dared rise up against them… [He] argues that there was an ‘untold holocaust’ which caused the deaths of almost 10 million people over 10 years beginning in 1857. Britain was then the world's superpower but, says Misra, came perilously close to losing its most prized possession: India.” Previously, it had been thought that “only” 100,000 Indian soldiers had been butchered in savage reprisals.
Marx commented on this event at the time in an article he wrote for the New York Tribune, (September 16, 1857), The Indian Revolt, in which he wrote:
“However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule. To characterize that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed an organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution: and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself.”
Here he is referring to the violence of the Indians who revolted against British rule. Later he emphasises that the instrument of retribution was forged by the British with their methods, when he writes:
“News arrived from Pindee that three native chiefs were plotting. Sir John Lawrence replied by a message ordering a spy to attend to the meeting. On the spy’s report, Sir John sent a second message, ‘Hang them.’ The chiefs were hanged. An officer in the civil service, from Allahabad, writes: ‘We have power of life and death in our hands, and we assure you we spare not.’
“Another, from the same place: ‘Not a day passes but we string up front ten to fifteen of them (non-combatants).’
“One exulting officer writes: ‘Holmes is hanging them by the score, like a “brick”.’
“Another, in allusion to the summary hanging of a large body of the natives: ‘Then our fun commenced.’
“A third: ‘We hold court-martials on horseback, and every nigger we meet with we either string up or shoot.’
“From Benares we are informed that thirty Zemindars were hanged for the mere suspicion of sympathizing with their own countrymen, and whole villages were burned down on the same plea. An officer from Benares, whose letter is printed in The London Times, says: ‘The European troops have become fiends when opposed to natives.’”
As we can see, the British officers in India had no qualms in summarily executing Indians who dared challenge their rule. Such massacres were repeated again in several parts of the British Empire throughout its history.
There were the Boer concentration camps set up during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. One sixth of the Boer population – mostly women and children – were rounded up and detained in the camps. Of the 107,000 detained in the camps, almost 28,000 died, together with a number of black Africans.
There was the Amritsar massacre when peaceful protesters in Amritsar, India, on 13 April 1919, were demonstrating against British colonial rule. The response of the British authorities was brutal: the protesters were blocked inside Jallianwala Gardens while Gurkha soldiers opened fire on them. They kept firing until they ran out of ammunition, killing hundreds, up to one thousand, although the exact figure is unknown. Brigadier Reginald Dyer, who ordered the shooting, was later treated as a hero by the British elite.
Let us not forget that this shooting of unarmed protestors in April 1919 was taking place at exactly the same time as the civil war that had broken out in Russia as the White armies attempted to crush the revolution. So while the violence of the Red Army, a violence in defence of the revolution, was being condemned by British “democrats”, these same democrats ruled over an Empire that was shooting peaceful protestors. The violence against the oppressors is to be condemned, while the violence of the oppressors is applauded.
Almost thirty years later, the British were forced to leave India, but not before Cyril Radcliffe had drawn an artificial border, dividing the country in two, leading to “ethnic cleansing” between Muslims and Hindus, with up to a million people being killed.
This tactic of “divide and rule”, used so cynically in India, was repeated by the British authorities throughout their colonies. Before leaving they would create a situation of conflict along religious, ethnic or language divides, such as in Ireland and Cyprus, which were later to produce new conflicts and more killings. In other colonies, such as Nigeria, they united artificially very different peoples within the same country, so as to create an internal tension which could be used to control the new countries that emerged once formal independence had been granted. All this, although extremely damaging for the people concerned, was considered a useful means of maintaining control over resources and markets. Profit is more important than people’s lives.
More recently, In Africa there was the famous Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya of 1951-1960, when members of the Kikuyu tribe were kept in concentration camps. There was a successful court case brought against the British government by Kenyans who claimed they were victims of systematic torture and rape at the hands of British troops. Anything between 20,000 and 100,000 are estimated to have died, and up to a million may have been killed in sectarian attacks.
Also, anything between 12 and 29 million Indians died of hunger during the period of British colonial rule, as huge quantities of wheat were exported to Britain, regardless of the suffering caused. There was the case in 1943 when Churchill had food taken from India for British soldiers just when famine on a huge scale was sweeping through Bengal.
Churchill, referring to that famine, said: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.” (Quoted in The Independent)
So much for the “civilising” influence of British rule in the colonies! On the contrary, it was barbarism of the worst kind. And these same ladies and gentlemen had the cheek to condemn the violence of workers and peasants in Russia as they rose up to overthrow their own exploiters.
The Paraguayan genocide
However, it wasn’t just in the direct colonies of Britain that such brutal methods were used. There is the genocide that took place in Paraguay during the 1864-70 War of the Triple Alliance [Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay]. In Britain the significance of this war tends to be played down, if not outright ignored. While in Latin America it is part of the memory of imperialist oppression.
With the 400,000 who died, it has gone down in history as Latin America’s bloodiest war. Paraguay, according to some calculations lost close to 70% of its adult male population. Large parts of its territory, around 40% were annexed by Brazil and Argentina. At the end of the war its population had been reduced to 221,000, of which only 28,000 were men.
For a more detailed reference to this war read the Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, [Chapter 4, Tales of Premature Death, subsection “How the war against Paraguay wrecked the only successful attempt at independent development”].
If you read some British historians, they claim there is no evidence of British involvement. That may be true in relation to direct military involvement. However, after listing all the economic interests of Britain in the area, they then claim this had nothing to do with a war which proved to be enormously profitable for the British capitalists and bankers.
The reality, however, is that British finance capital had extended its tentacles into Latin America and played a big role in the economies of Brazil and Argentina, inundating these countries with British manufactured goods, extracting raw materials and providing loans on a grand scale. As some have referred to it, much of Latin America had become part of Britain’s “informal empire”.
As Galeano explains, the economy of Paraguay was not controlled by foreign imperialist but was overwhelmingly in the hands of the state, as there was no local bourgeois oligarchy. For example, 98% of the land was state owned. Paraguay had achieved a degree of economic development through direct state investment, independent of the imperialist powers, with no loans from them and no debts to them; its market also remained inaccessible to them. Again, for the details read Galeano’s book. We will just provide a few quotes here:
“Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay joined in committing genocide. They left no stone unturned, nor male inhabitants amid the ruins. Although Britain took no direct part in the ghastly deed, it was in the pockets of British merchants, bankers, and industrialists that the loot ended up. The invasion was financed from start to finish by the Bank of London, Baring Brothers, and the Rothschild bank, in loans at exorbitant interest rates which mortgaged the fate of the victorious countries. (…)
“British commerce did not hide its concern, not only because this last bastion of national resistance in the heart of the continent seemed invulnerable, but also and especially because of the dangerous example set to its neighbors by Paraguayan obstinacy. Latin America's most progressive country was building its future without foreign investment, without British bank loans, and without the blessings of free trade. (…)
“Britain's minister in Buenos Aires, Edward Thornton, played a substantial role in preparing for the war. When it was about to break out, he participated as a government advisor in Argentine cabinet meetings, sitting beside President Mitre. The web of provocations and deceptions, which ended with a Brazilian-Argentine agreement that sealed Paraguay's fate, was woven under Thornton's fatherly gaze. (…)
“When the war began, Paraguay had almost as large a population as Argentina. Only 250,000, less than one-sixth, survived in 1870. It was the triumph of civilization. The victors, ruined by the enormous cost of the crime, fell back into the arms of the British bankers who had financed the adventure. The slave empire of Pedro II, whose armies were filled with slaves and prisoners, nevertheless won more than 20,000 square miles of territory — plus labor, for the Paraguayan prisoners who were marched off to work on the Sao Paulo coffee plantations were branded like slaves.”
The genocide was justified from the point of view of British capital. Paraguay was opened up, although crushed in the process, and Brazil and Argentina who did the fighting and killing ended up further in debt to the British who had provided the finance. Good business indeed, except for the Paraguayan masses of course!
Belgian, French, German and Italian imperialists no better
The British were not alone in their brutality. Between 1870 and 1900 King Leopold of Belgium looted the Congo, which was valuable as a source of rubber. While claiming to protect the "natives" from the Arab slave trade, he turned his so-called "Congo Free State" into one gigantic labour camp, the size of half of Europe. It is estimated that up to 10 million Congolese died as a consequence of the brutalities meted out. Christian missionaries were sent in to begin the process of colonisation. But the real force was the Belgian military, which put down an unarmed local population, raping, torturing and killing those who refused to obey the king’s orders.
In order to guarantee that the soldiers were carrying out orders, the soldiers were required to hack off the right hand of their victims as proof. Whole villages were burnt down, with the women taken as hostages while the men were sent to bring back rubber. If they did not bring back the required quantities everyone in the village was killed. For a more detailed account read The Butcher of Congo.
There is also Mark Twain’s famous King Leopold's Soliloquy, in which he quotes from a Report of a "Journey made in July, August and September, 1903, [to the Congo] by Rev. A. E. Scrivener, a British missionary":
“Soon we began talking, and without any encouragement on my part the natives began the tales I had become so accustomed to. They were living in peace and quietness when the white men came in from the lake with all sorts of requests to do this and that, and they thought it meant slavery. So they attempted to keep the white men out of their country but without avail. The rifles were too much for them. So they submitted and made up their minds to do the best they could under the altered circumstances. First came the command to build houses for the soldiers, and this was done without a murmur. Then they had to feed the soldiers and all the men and women -- hangers on -- who accompanied them. Then they were told to bring in rubber. This was quite a new thing for them to do. There was rubber in the forest several days away from their home, but that it was worth anything was news to them. A small reward was offered and a rush was made for the rubber. 'What strange white men, to give us cloth and beads for the sap of a wild vine.' They rejoiced in what they thought their good fortune. But soon the reward was reduced until at last they were told to bring in the rubber for nothing. To this they tried to demur; but to their great surprise several were shot by the soldiers, and the rest were told, with many curses and blows, to go at once or more would be killed. Terrified, they began to prepare their food for the fortnight's absence from the village which the collection of rubber entailed. The soldiers discovered them sitting about. 'What, not gone yet?' Bang! bang! bang! and down fell one and another, dead, in the midst of wives and companions. There is a terrible wail and an attempt made to prepare the dead for burial, but this is not allowed. All must go at once to the forest. Without food? Yes, without food. And off the poor wretches had to go without even their tinder boxes to make fires. Many died in the forests of hunger and exposure, and still more from the rifles of the ferocious soldiers in charge of the post. In spite of all their efforts the amount fell off and more and more were killed. I was shown around the place, and the sites of former big chief's settlements were pointed out. A careful estimate made the population of, say, seven years ago, to be 2,000 people in and about the post, within a radius of, say, a quarter of a mile. All told, they would not muster 200 now, and there is so much sadness and gloom about them that they are fast decreasing.”
The French imperialists used equally brutal methods in their Empire, from Algeria to Indo-China [today Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia]. Torture was commonly used. Their methods were encapsulated in Pontecorvo’s famous film, the Battle of Algiers. The German colonies – before Germany lost its Empire – were treated to equally brutal methods. One of the most famous cases of genocide in Namibia, then known as South West Africa, was that of the Herero and Nama people who rebelled against German rule. Between 1904 and 1908, up to 100,000 were massacred. The survivors were kept in concentration camps in slave-like conditions. (See the BBC report African viewpoint: Remembering German crimes in Namibia and the Herero and Namaqua genocide for a more detailed account). Italian imperialism was equally brutal, as described earlier in this article, when they sued nerve gas in Libya and Ethiopia.
The brutal nature of US imperialism: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Millions were killed by the various imperialist powers during and after they had established their colonies. The development of technology in the production of arms, however, was to take the power of destruction in the hands of the imperialists to previously undreamed of levels.
Since the Second World War the number of countries with nuclear weapons has grown significantly, including Pakistan, India and also Israel, although officially the latter does not admit to having them. A lot of effort has been spent in trying to limit the number of countries with a nuclear capability. It is sufficient to look at the efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear programme to see this. The idea behind this is that something needs to be done to stop these weapons getting into the hands of terrible despots who might use them in war or terrorist attacks.
The main power behind this effort is the US. The irony of this, of course is that the US are the only country to have ever actually used nuclear bombs. This was in August 1945 when the first nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima instantly killed 70,000 people, with a further 20,000 dying by the end of the year from the effects of radiation. Then Nagasaki was hit with another nuclear bomb, instantaneously killing around 35,000 people. But over the next five years the total number who died as a result of the two bombs is calculated as being over 200,000.
Why were such powerful weapons used? The official excuse is that it was to bring the war to an earlier end in the East. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey group, assigned by President Truman to study us attacks on Japan, produced a report in July of 1946 that concluded :
"Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."
General Dwight Eisenhower – who later became president, but who was then Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces, said:
"The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing."
History.com also points out that:
“In the years since the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, a number of historians have suggested that the weapons had a two-pronged objective. First, of course, was to bring the war with Japan to a speedy end and spare American lives. It has been suggested that the second objective was to demonstrate the new weapon of mass destruction to the Soviet Union. By August 1945, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States had deteriorated badly. The Potsdam Conference between U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Russian leader Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill (before being replaced by Clement Attlee) ended just four days before the bombing of Hiroshima. The meeting was marked by recriminations and suspicion between the Americans and Soviets. Russian armies were occupying most of Eastern Europe. Truman and many of his advisers hoped that the U.S. atomic monopoly might offer diplomatic leverage with the Soviets. In this fashion, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan can be seen as the first shot of the Cold War.”
Thus the killing of 200,000 people was considered by the US government of the time as a useful means of intimidating the Soviet Union, who, let us not forget, was supposed to be an “ally”. After seeing the Soviet Union march through half of Europe and taking control of Eastern Europe, the Americans were concerned that it might do something similar in Asia. What it shows is that in spite of having to accept the help of the Soviet Union against Hitler, the capitalist class in the West could not tolerate the fact that in spite of the Stalinist degeneration, the state-owned planned economy continued to survive in the Soviet Union. Thus, again, we see how violence on a grand scale – what greater violence can one envisage than the use of nuclear bombs? – was justified by the bourgeoisie if it was in the defence of private property and the market!
First and Second World Wars - a bloodbath in the name of profit
The First World War was described as the war to end all wars. The problem is that so long as the capitalist system survives there will always be war.
In “normal” peaceful periods, the antagonisms between the different national ruling classes are played within the market. There is a constant struggle to conquer new markets or push out rivals from old ones. This takes place normally on the basis of competition based on increasing the productivity of labour through investment, lowering the wages of one’s own workers, grabbing raw materials to cheapen overall costs of production.
This is going on all the time, and in times of prolonged world expansion of the market, with growing world trade and production, there can be a relative peace between the powers. As the pie gets bigger, even a small slice is actually bigger than what there was before.
The problem arises when the system reaches saturation point, when the market no longer expands sufficiently to absorb the growing quantity of goods the system can produce. In these conditions, the weaker producers go to the wall. Whereas in the previous period of expansion markets were being opened up and free trade was taken for granted, once the opposite process begins, the tendency is towards using protectionist measures to protect one's’ own market.
Initially this leads to conflicts expressed in tariffs imposed on imports from other countries, or in blocs created to defend the interests of one group of nations against another. But at a certain point, the antagonisms spill over into armed conflicts, initially of a local nature.
Twice in the 20th century the contradictions reached such an extreme that world war between the major powers became the only way of settling the conflicts. Once all the conditions had been prepared for war, it was just a question of each power seeking the excuse to declare war, and trying, of course, to present the war as a “defensive” move against the other “aggressors”.
Thus we are told at school that the First World War was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, leading to Austria-Hungary declaring war, followed by most European states entering the war. The truth is that all the conditions for war had accumulated in the previous period and a general conflagration would have erupted sooner or later. [For a more detailed analysis see: First World War - A Marxist Analysis of the Great Slaughter, by Alan Woods]
The war was mainly between the rising power of Germany with its growing industries in need of a market, and the historically established power of Britain with its Empire and control of world markets. It was a war between equally predatory imperialist powers.
The Second World War was a continuation of the First. They tell us in school lessons that it was a war to “defend democracy”, but as we have seen earlier in this article, the British and American ruling classes looked with sympathy on both Mussolini and Hitler, when they were crushing the workers of Italy and Germany. There was no call to intervene to stop Mussolini’s and Hitler’s butchery when they were killing their own workers. It was only when Germany under Hitler became a threat to the power and influence of Britain and other powers, that they decided to go to war. [See the section of our website dedicated to the Second World War, and in particular D-Day and the truth about the Second World War, and The truth about the Second World War - Part Two by Alan Woods]
As an excuse Hitler accused the Polish of carrying out ethnic cleansing of Germans living in Poland and then proceeded to invade in September 1939, fully aware of the fact that this would mean war with Britain and France. The British government had done nothing when Hitler took Austria; they did nothing when he invaded Czechoslovakia; but as he expanded more and more into neighbouring countries, it became evident that Germany was becoming a major threat to their interests. That is when they discovered that they were “anti-fascists” and for democracy. The war was thus sold as a war for democracy, when it was nothing of the kind.
Over 17 million people were killed during the First World War, with a further 20 million wounded. The Second World War led to even greater deaths, with over 60 million killed. Some estimates reach the figure of 80 million by including famines and disease that were direct consequences of the war. The Soviet Union alone lost over 25 million people, which highlights the fact that most of the fighting and killing was on the eastern front between German forces and Soviet forces.
Thus, in two world wars something like 80 million people were killed. And the number of cases of cold-blooded massacre of unarmed civilians is endless, from the indiscriminate bombing of cities, such as the blitz over London that killed over 40,000, or the 25,000 civilians killed in Dresden, Germany, not to mention the millions who perished in the Nazi concentration camps.
All this was the result of the conflicting interests of the national bourgeoisies of the various imperialist powers. For the sake of profit, of power, privileges and spheres of influence they were prepared to kill tens of millions of people. THis is what the capitalist class is capable of when its vital interests are threatened.
Once again US imperialism: the Vietnam War
This is not the place to recount the historical background that led to the Vietnam War. See Vietnam 1945 - The derailed revolution, and The Tet Offensive: the turning point in the Vietnam War. A brief outline here is sufficient.
At the end of the Second World War, after the defeat of the Japanese occupying forces, the Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam. But the old French rulers were not prepared to relinquish their colonial rule. Thus an eight-year war ensued against the French. The Viet Minh could have taken the whole of Vietnam, but under Russian and Chinese advice, they accepted a “temporary partition” of the country, “pending” new elections, which were never organised. A US-backed regime emerged in the South, but its weakness eventually forced the US to intervene militarily.
What price did the people of Vietnam pay for this? Starting with “advisors” in 1960, by 1965, 200,000 US soldiers were in Vietnam, growing to half a million by 1968. Anything between one and half million and four million people lost their lives in the Vietnam War, according to different sources. Close to 60,000 US soldiers lost their lives in the fighting. The US dropped more than eight million tons of explosives, three times the amount used by all sides during the whole of the Second World War.
The chemicals, Napalm and Agent Orange were used by the US military. Napalm was initially used in flamethrowers, but later dropped by planes. Napalm can cause widespread fires burning anyone and anything in the area hit. Agent Orange is a chemical defoliant. It was used to clear large areas of forest to destroy the cover of the Vietcong. It can cause cancer in the long run and many US troops and Vietnamese exposed to it subsequently fell ill with cancer.
Many atrocities were also carried out against the Vietnamese people by the US military, one of the most infamous being the My Lai massacre in March 1968 when up to 500 unarmed civilians, including women and children, were killed by US soldiers. Of the 26 US soldiers charged with this crime, only one received a prison sentence, originally a life sentence, but in the end he only served three and a half years under house arrest.
Eventually, US efforts to stop Vietnam being united under the North Vietnamese regime failed, for the people did not want the Americans in Vietnam and this was clearly demonstrated as the war proceeded. Had the promised elections been granted in the 1950s the Vietnamese Communist Party would undoubtedly have won. But rather than accept what was clearly the will of the Vietnamese people, US imperialism unleashed hell on them for more than twenty years. And they have the courage to talk of the violence of the Bolsheviks.
The 1965 Indonesian massacre
During the same period of the Vietnam War, in Indonesia the workers and peasants were in ferment. By 1965, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had grown to a force of around three million, with around 10 million sympathisers. This is not the place to outline the Indonesian revolution. [See Revolution and counter-revolution in Indonesia (1965) by Alan Woods for more details]. Suffice it to say that the killings that followed made the butchery at the end of the Paris Commune look like a tea party! According to Time magazine:
“An estimated 500,000 to 1 million people, [mainly Communist Party activist and supporters] some say even millions, perished in 1965–66 as the army, paramilitary groups and religious organizations hunted down members of the Indonesian Communist Party (which was blamed for the deaths of six army generals on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 1965), suspected communists and leftist sympathizers; ethnic Chinese were targeted too. Hundreds of thousands more people ended up in jails, or exiled to far-flung gulag islands or overseas.” (Time magazine, September 30, 2015)
Even the CIA has had to admit that, “In terms of the numbers killed, the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century". (CIA study in 1968) It is common knowledge now that he American government provided lists of communist activists to the Indonesian death squads.
Again, one can find information on these events in the media, but for decades very little was said about this in the mainstream media. However, in 2013 a film was made about what happened, "The Act of Killing" which shows US-Backed Indonesian death squad leaders re-enacting the 1965 massacres. [See interview and also our article, Indonesia: Review of “The Act of Killing”.] The film confirms what was known, that with US-backing hundreds of thousands of left activists in Indonesia were hunted down and butchered.
Such was the threat to Indonesian capitalism at the time, that the US ruling class and the local elite felt the need to destroy the Indonesian Communist Party physically and remove any memory of what had happened. In fact for years the Indonesian regime hid the truth from its own people. Recently attempts have been made, not at achieving justice for the victims, but at working towards “reconciliation”. This is an attempt to bury the whole thing and “move on”.
However, we can never forget the victims of that butchery, and it remains as a reminder of the lengths that the capitalists, both Indonesian and their international allies, are prepared to go to when faced with revolution.
Argentina 1976 and Chile 1973
Latin America has a history of military regimes that came to power in the past, backed by the CIA and other US offices. As “Military Government in Latin America, 1959–1990”, by Brian E. Loveman, published in Oxford Bibliographies points out, “Long-term military governments, with changing leadership in most cases, controlled eleven Latin American nations for significant periods from 1964 to 1990: Ecuador, 1963–1966 and 1972–1978; Guatemala, 1963–1985 (with an interlude from 1966–1969); Brazil, 1964–1985; Bolivia, 1964–1970 and 1971–1982; Argentina, 1966–1973 and 1976–1983; Peru, 1968–1980; Panama, 1968–1989; Honduras, 1963–1966 and 1972–1982; Chile, 1973–1990; and Uruguay, 1973–1984. In El Salvador the military dominated government from 1948 until 1984, but the last “episode” was from 1979 to 1984.”
The coming to power of these regimes were never “peaceful” events, but always involved the torture and killing of labour movement activists. The so-called democratic and “progressive” bourgeoisies of Western Europe and the United States did nothing to stop these regimes coming to power. On the contrary, they collaborated with the local bourgeoisie in imposing brutal military rule. US imperialism played a particularly important role in this process. The reason is clear: all this was good for profit, as these regimes destroyed the power of the working class to fight back, smashing their trade union organisations and outlawing their political parties.
One of the most infamous of these regimes was the Argentinian military junta that came to power in the 24 March 1976 coup. Even before that coup, the military had been involved in what became known as the “Dirty War”, during which state security forces together with right-wing death squads hunted down left activists, tortured them and killed many. The exact number killed or "disappeared" (desaparecidos) is unknown, but estimates indicate that up to 30,000 were killed with no trace of what happened to them in many cases. One of the methods used was to throw the victims into the sea from helicopters!
What happened in Chile is a classic of reformist failure to transform society leading to defeat and a bloody coup. The experience of Chile in 1973 answers all those who claim that moderation avoids violence! The elected government of Salvador Allende (1970-73), which had carried out a series of left reforms, but without challenging the system as a whole, was eventually overthrown on September 11, 1973 in a bloody coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. (See Lessons of Chile 1973, by Alan Woods for an analysis of that experience).
With the “secret” support of the United States, the coup organisers bombed the presidential palace, during which the democratically elected President Salvador Allende was killed. The Pinochet regime then proceeded to round up, torture, kill and force into exile tens of thousands of Chileans. For the following 17 years, Chileans were denied all democratic rights.
Since then US official documents relating to those events have been declassified and, through the Freedom of Information Act, the US National Security Archive was able to obtain documents from the period 1970-76. The documentation proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the US was involved in covert operations to promote a military coup and undermine Allende's government. Included in the documents are “minutes of meetings between Henry Kissinger and CIA officials, CIA cables to its Santiago station, and summaries of covert action” and much more.
According to the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation and the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture, 35,000 fell victim to the repression meted out by the Pinochet regime. According to the same sources, 28,000 were tortured, 2,279 were executed, and a further 1,248 went missing. A further 200,000 were forced into exile.
It is not possible to list here all the victims of that terrible period, but the way Victor Lara, theatre director, poet, singer, songwriter and political activist, was treated highlights what went on in the few days after the coup. He was arrested and taken to the Santiago stadium together with thousands of others. There he was tortured, his hands and fingers smashed by the guards. They then then mocked him, asking him if he could play the guitar. Then they shot him in the head, and riddled his body with bullets. His body was later found on the street of a shantytown in Santiago. Many more suffered a similar fate.
Once again, this was the response of the bourgeoisie to yet another attempt on the part of ordinary working people to achieve radical change in their living conditions. The people of Chile had elected a left government in the hope of putting an end to poverty, homelessness, unemployment and decades of oppression under capitalism. The experience proved for the umpteenth time that “democracy” is tolerated by the bourgeoisie so long as there is no direct challenge to the power, privileges and property of the capitalist class.
How did our democratic Western governments react to this bloodletting? As we have seen, the US government backed it. In 1999 “Baroness Thatcher” visited General Pinochet where he was staying under house arrest near London at the time and talked of the “debt” she believed the UK owed him. [See BBC article, Thatcher stands by Pinochet]. And, as The Telegraph explained in 2006, “Margaret Thatcher has nothing to be ashamed of in defending Augusto Pinochet… he was lucky to find such a champion.” He also had a friend in Pope John Paul II who appealed to the British government for the release of Pinochet "for humanitarian reasons".
Iran: the 1988 mass executions
In January 2009 a little talked about event took place in Iran. The authorities destroyed hundreds of unmarked graves in the Khavaran cemetery in Tehran. This was an attempt to erase the memory of what had taken place in 1988 when thousands of Iranian political prisoners were summarily executed. In those killings, children as young as 13 were strung up from cranes and pulled up until they choked to death, six at a time, to save time. This method of hanging was preferred as it is much slower than the trap-door hanging which leads to almost instant death!
This went on for two months. The orders came directly from Ayatollah Khomeini in the form of a Fatwa. According to some estimates up to 30,000 were thus executed. [See The Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran, 1988 - Report of an inquiry conducted by Geoffrey Robertson QC.] Although we take no responsibility for any of the political conclusions the report may provide, it does give many eyewitness accounts of survivors who describe how the interrogations and killings were carried out].
The Economist in an article published on June 21st 2012, Iran, 1988 - What happened?, states the following:
“The killing was ordered by a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who became Supreme Leader of Iran after the revolution. It was relentless and efficient. Prisoners, including women and teenagers, were loaded onto forklift trucks and hanged from cranes and beams in groups of five or six at half-hourly intervals all day long. Others were killed by firing squad. Those not executed were subjected to torture. The victims were intellectuals, students, left-wingers, members of the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (MEK), other opposition parties and ethnic and religious minorities. Many had originally been sentenced for non-violent offences such as distributing newspapers and leaflets, taking part in demonstrations or collecting funds for prisoners' families, according to a report published by Amnesty International, an NGO, in 1990. (…)
“Iran had killed a large number of political prisoners throughout the 1980s, so why the sudden increase in 1988? The witnesses' testimonies suggest that the regime was worried about the large number of unrepentant political prisoners due to be released after the end of the war with Iraq, and so decided to purge its prisons of troublesome elements once and for all.
“Witnesses described how, in the months preceding the massacre, they were questioned and separated according to their political and religious beliefs, and moved across various prisons. Then they were called one-by-one in front of a makeshift court made up of an Islamic judge, a state prosecutor and a representative of the Ministry of Intelligence. They were asked: ‘Are you a Muslim’, ‘Do you pray?’, ‘What is your political affiliation?’ and ‘Do you recant your beliefs and political activities?’ If their answers didn't satisfy the court they were sent for execution.”
Those that survived suffered terrible physical and psychological torture, the aim of which was to break them and assure that they never returned to political activity that might threaten the regime in the future. The cream of the Iranian Communist movement was butchered in these killings, together with other dissident political activists.
What was the aim of the regime in these mass killings? It was to defend the privileges of the elite in Iran. While hijacking the 1979 revolution and dressing itself in its clothes, the Iranian Islamic clergy had proceeded to destroy everything that the revolution really stood for. [See Thirty years since the Iranian Revolution for a brief outline and a guide to further reading on those events]. Interestingly, Khomeini was named “Man of the Year” in 1979 by Time magazine, apparently, for his “international influence”.
As The Guardian pointed out in an article published last year in June, “newly declassified US diplomatic cables revealed extensive contacts between Ayatollah Khomeini and the Carter administration just weeks ahead of Iran’s Islamic revolution (…) declassified 1980 CIA analysis titled Islam in Iran… shows Khomeini’s initial attempts to reach out to the US dated back to 1963, 16 years before the revolution.”
The same article explains that, “Khomeini returned to Tehran on 1 February 1979, two weeks after the shah had fled Iran. The Iranian military, which was under US influence, soon surrendered, and within months Khomenei was declared the supreme leader of a new Islamic republic.”
Although later Iran and the US were to come into conflict, due to Iran’s growing power and influence in the region that threatened the position of US allies such as Saudi Arabia, when it was a question of stopping genuine social revolution, the US establishment and the Iranian Islamic clergy found common ground. That explains why the Iranian military of the time listened to their US masters and allowed power to pass to Khomeini.
The Iraq Wars
“Half a million children have died in Iraq since UN sanctions were imposed - most enthusiastically by Britain and the US. Three UN officials have resigned in despair. Meanwhile, bombing of Iraq continues almost daily.” This is how an article, Squeezed to death published in The Guardian by John Pilger opened on 4th March, 2000. Pilger was writing about the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the first Iraq War of 1991.
Some have attempted to say that the figure of half a million Iraqi children under the age of five dying as a result of the sanctions imposed over the previous eight years was an exaggerated figure from a UNICEF report and have offered the “more realistic figure” of 350,000. As if that makes it any better!
Pilger in his article explains that, “According to Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, the death rate of children under five is more than 4,000 a month - that is 4,000 more than would have died before sanctions. That is half a million children dead in eight years. If this statistic is difficult to grasp, consider, on the day you read this, up to 200 Iraqi children may die needlessly. ‘Even if not all the suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors,’ says Unicef, ‘the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivation in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of war’."
It was common knowledge at the time that the sanctions were having these horrific effects on children in Iraq, but nonetheless the US and British imperialists ruthlessly continued to push for this policy.
John Pilger highlights the cold-blooded ruthless calculation of the then US Administration when he writes, “When asked on US television if she thought that the death of half a million Iraqi children was a price worth paying, Albright replied: ‘This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it’." There we have it: the US Secretary of State (in office between 1997-2001) considered the death of half a million children as a price worth paying!
The death and suffering, however, did not flow solely from the sanctions. People continued to die after the first Iraq war of 1991 from the contamination produced by the weapons used during the war.
"It carries death," said Dr Jawad Al-Ali, a cancer specialist and member of Britain's Royal College of Physicians. "Our own studies indicate that more than 40 per cent of the population in this area will get cancer: in five years' time to begin with, then long afterwards. Most of my own family now have cancer, and we have no history of the disease. It has spread to the medical staff of this hospital. We don't know the precise source of the contamination, because we are not allowed to get the equipment to conduct a proper scientific survey, or even to test the excess level of radiation in our bodies. We suspect depleted uranium, which was used by the Americans and British in the Gulf War right across the southern battlefields." (from the same article quoted above).
Then there are the actual numbers killed during the second Iraq war itself. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility,
“...the war has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e. a total of around 1.3 million. Not included in this figure are further war zones such as Yemen. The figure is approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs. And this is only a conservative estimate. The total number of deaths in the three countries named above could also be in excess of 2 million, whereas a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely.” (PSR: Physicians for Social Responsibility, March 2015)
Even the BBC in an October 2013 report Iraq study estimates war-related deaths at 461,000 pointed out that, “About half a million people died in Iraq as a result of war-related causes between the US-led invasion in 2003 and mid-2011.”
The deaths from sanction and war thus amount to at least one million. Let us not forget that we were told that war was necessary to stop Saddam Hussein who had weapons that could hit Britain in 45 minutes. This has all been shown to be completely false. It was a fabrication to get on board “public opinion”.
The war went ahead in spite of huge protests, such as the two-million strong anti-war demonstration in London in 2003.
But let us ask ourselves who benefitted from that war. The people of Iraq certainly didn’t. Neither did the people of the wider Middle East, as the situation in Syria now reveals. The war prepared the conditions on the ground for the emergence of ISIS and strengthened Islamic fundamentalist groups, who have carried out many bomb and suicide attacks around the world, bringing death to the streets of Paris, London, Brussels and other cities. So, far from making it a safer world for everyone, the long term effect of the Iraq Wars has been to bring greater instability, greater suffering and less security for the people of the world.
There is a group that did benefit, however, and that is the powerful arms industry, in particular the US weapons industry. In the top ten arms selling companies in the world, six are American, United Technologies, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin. The other are British, French, Italian and Dutch. In 2013 the top ten companies made $23billion in profit from arms sales. [source; Blood Money: These Companies and People Make Billions of Dollars from War]
An article published in Time magazine in March 2014, Here Are the 5 Companies Making a Killing Off Wars Around the World, explained,
“Despite the decline in military spending, the business of war remains a good one. The 100 largest arms producers and military services contractors recorded $395 billion in arms sales in 2012. Lockheed Martin, the largest arms seller, alone accounted for $36 billion in such sales during 2012.”
Two military campaigns in particular, those in Iraq and Afghanistan, provided very lucrative markets for the arms industry. In 2011 $159 billion were spent on these two wars, and the following year a further $115 billion were spent. Overall worldwide military spending in 2013 was $1.75 trillion and this was a “bad year” as spending was down by nearly 2 per cent.
As Lenin pointed out, “War is a ‘terrible’ thing? Yes. But it is a terribly profitable thing.” (May Day and the War, Written in the last days of April 1915) That adds something to the meaning of Albright’s words “a price worth paying”. Half a million children dead in a decade is the price, and $23billion profit in one year is the benefit.
These same people will shed oceans of crocodile tears about the deaths during the civil war that followed on from the Russian Revolution, and will write volumes and volumes of lies and distortions about what happened in 1917, but when it comes to killing hundreds of thousands, millions, of innocent civilians in wars that produce huge profits then they suddenly cease to be so sensitive and the real face of the monster that is the international bourgeoisie emerges “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
In the previous parts of this article we have seen the real face of the capitalist class, both its predatory nature on a global scale and its capacity for violent suppression of any mass popular revolt that challenges its right to rule. Some will say, yes but this was in the past; now the system has become more civilised and humane. Recent history shows that this is utterly false.
Cynical use of Islamic fundamentalism
We have seen how one form of Islamic fundamentalism, the Iranian type, was used to hijack a workers’ revolution in 1978 and crush those who had dared to change society. But there is another form, which was eventually to lead to formations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. They all have their origins in counter-revolution, and all of them have received backing and sponsorship at some point from western powers.
It is sufficient to look at the use of Islamic fundamentalist groups at present, and also to understand where these groups originated from, to see that bloody violent methods are still a useful tool in the arsenal of weapons at the disposal of the ruling classes, not just the Saudis or Qataris, but US imperialism, British imperialism, French imperialism and all the others.
There is a long history of the use of Islamic fundamentalism as a battering ram against revolution, going back to the early 20th century, but it was in the 1950s that the US government, and its agencies such as the CIA, saw in Islamic fundamentalism a useful reactionary force with which to combat progressive and left forces that had emerged in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
From the 1950s through to the 1970s there was a general shift to the left in many countries of Africa and Asia, producing in some cases regimes that leaned towards the Soviet Union, such as in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia. In other countries there were radical left groups that emerged as powerful forces. In Egypt under Nasser the country moved in the direction of snuffing out capitalism altogether and leaned towards the Soviet Union for a period. This was in the context of the 1949 Chinese revolution, the 1959 Cuban revolution, the defeat of the US in Vietnam, the Afghan Saur revolution of 1978, the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979, all of which seemed to be shifting the balance against US imperialism and its allies.
All this alarmed the imperialists, the US in particular. That explains why in that period they backed and sponsored Islamic fundamentalist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, from which later even more extreme groups were to emerge. It thus became a key element in US foreign policy to foster such groups as a counterweight to the rising class struggle taking place. Both the CIA and the Pentagon supplied huge sums to these reactionary organisations. Such groups as the Jamaat-e-Islami groups were used, for example, in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, during the 1971 uprising of the Mukti Bahini freedom fighters, to systematically hunt down and kill Bengali worker and youth left activists. Hamas was sponsored by both Israel and the US as a counterweight to the PLO in the past, and so on.
In his book, Islam in India and Pakistan - A Religious History, (Vij Books India Pvt Ltd, 20 Feb 2016) Professor Y P Singh points out:
“Islamic fundamentalism provides a glaring example of imperialist hypocrisy. Now the USA and the imperialist West pose as the biggest enemy of Islamic fundamentalism and try to fool the working class in the West by presenting fundamentalism as a big challenge to world peace. But it was the same imperialism that used these fundamentalist forces against the left in various Muslim countries.
“In the 1950s and 1960s there was a rise of populist, anti-imperialist and class movements. The USA worked out a plan to patronise the fundamentalists in order to weaken these populist movements, which imperialism feared could end up in socialist revolutions. The CIA, under the guidance of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, established a liaison between fundamentalist parties in different countries. According to the plan, a network of Akwanul Muslameen popularly known as Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt), Hamas (Syria), Sarakat ul Islam (Indonesia), Islamic Salvation Front (Algeria) and Jamaat Islami (Pakistan) was established. These parties were given full economic and political support during that period.
“This process reached its peak during the 1980s, when thousands of militants or so-called Mujahideen were trained and sent to Afghanistan. The Jamaat Islami of Pakistan provided the main force, but the above-mentioned parties also sent their share. (…)
“In the Afghan war, thousands of guerrillas fought against the Afghan revolution at the command of the CIA and the Pentagon. Osama bin Laden was a hero then.”
Osama bin Laden confirmed his relationship to the CIA in an interview to AFP in August 1998, where he stated: "I set up my first camp in Pakistan where these volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis..."
When it was a question of trying to remove the Afghan regime that had emerged from the 1978 Saur revolution, Osama bin Laden and his mujahidin “freedom fighters” were hailed as heroes by the West. Ronald Reagan, US president in the early 1980s was full of praise for these people, the same people who went on to become the infamous Taliban who ruled Afghanistan with ruthless methods after the Soviet forces withdraw and the regime collapsed. It was here that Al-Qaeda got a base and then later spread to other countries. ISIS emerged out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.
Has the bourgeois lost the habit?
To say that all this is in the past and no longer applies today is naïve to say the least. In Syria, the US were still backing some of these Islamic groups only a few months ago, among them the various Al-Qaeda affiliated organisations such as Jabhat al Nusra, Ahrar al Sham and a myriad of smaller Islamic groups such as the Nour al Din al Zinki brigades. They have also granted tacit support to ISIS. For example, John Kerry recently admitted in leaked audios that the US was counting on ISIS advances to push Assad to come to the negotiating table.
What was the purpose of supporting such groups in Syria and why did they get involved with these groups in the first place? The answer can be found in the Arab Spring of 2011. When the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions overthrew decades-long despotic dictatorships – “friends of the west” – the imperialists could not intervene directly, so powerful was the mass movement. However, in Libya and then Syria they saw the opportunity to cut across the revolutionary wave that had been spreading out across the whole region. In Libya they bombed the country and now it has sunk into barbarism and chaos. This method was then used in Syria, where initially there had been a genuine revolutionary upsurge of the youth. What there was of genuine revolution was very quickly snuffed out. In stepped regimes like the Saudis and Qataris, who backed and financed some of the most barbaric and ruthless of the Islamic fundamentalist groups.
The end result of all this is utter barbarism with hundreds of thousands killed and millions made homeless. To the ruling elites of the Gulf States this barbarism and chaos is preferable to revolution. But the European powers and the US have a big responsibility in all this. They set in motion the process that was to lead to this situation by going into Iraq back in 2003. They did so by lying to their own people about the weapons that Saddam Hussein was supposed to have. In the course of the war and the period that followed, up to a million people lost their lives.
The only ones to gain from the Iraq war - as we saw in the previous section of this article - were the big multinational corporations who sell weapons. An article, 10 companies profiting the most from war, published in USA Today in 2013, explains that, “The business of war is profitable. In 2011, the 100 largest contractors sold $410 billion in arms and military services. Just 10 of those companies sold over $208 billion.”
The everyday violence of capitalist society
The present article does not exhaust the long list of crimes against humanity carried out in the name of profit. It has only touched on some of the most well-known revolutionary events in history that were later drowned in blood. There are many, many more from the history, not only of Europe, but also of Latin America, Africa and Asia that are too numerous to list. Suffice it to say that the capitalist class globally has shown many times that it is prepared to use violence and cause terrible bloodshed in the defence of its profits and privileges.
However, their violence is not just the most evident that appears in times of wars and revolutions and counter-revolutions. Their violence is perpetrated every day in every corner of the globe in the workplaces. “Over one million work-related deaths occur annually according to ILO estimates and hundreds of millions of workers suffer from workplace accidents and occupational exposure to hazardous substances worldwide…” according to the ILO. And according to the World Health Organisation, An estimated 12.6 million deaths each year are attributable to unhealthy environments. “The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 795 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2014-2016.” (Hunger Notes)
There is the violence of having to work long hours for low wages, the humiliation of having to buckle under and do as you are told, for fear of losing your job. There is the fear of being evicted, the fear of not having health facilities if you fall ill. All this is the violence of the bourgeoisie, and it is going on as you read this article.
Twenty million people presently face the threat of starvation, in Nigeria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen, but if you look at the reasons for this, one sees that although in some areas harvests have not been good, the threat of death by starvation is due to manoeuvres by this or that imperialist power, this or that local power - see the role of Saudi Arabia for instance - or conflicts within local ruling elites. In order to hold on to power, the people at the top are prepared to unleash this barbarism. And this will continue to go on so long as this system survives.
What about the Soviet gulags?
We can expect a lot of objections to the arguments raised in this article, and one of these will be to list those who died in the Gulags of Stalin. To this we answer that the first to die in Stalin’s Gulags were Communists. Many old Bolsheviks perished, including most of the Bolshevik party leadership that led the October Revolution. The infamous Moscow Trials were organised to eliminate all voices of dissent within the party and the country. We have published The Trotskyists in Stalin's concentration camps - An eyewitness account of the strike at Vorkuta which describes the killings that took place.
What we would add here is that this violence, again, was violence to defend the privileged, this time not a propertied class, but the Stalinist bureaucratic caste that had come to power usurping the political power achieved by the working class in 1917. It is not by chance that decades later in 1991 the heirs of Stalin, the bureaucrats that governed the Soviet Union, were to lead the process of a return to capitalist relations where they transformed themselves into property owning capitalists.
Those who have nothing to be ashamed of are the followers of the ideas of Leon Trotsky, who did not bend to the pressure at the time, but maintained a principled stand throughout. Trotsky paid a big price for this, first seeing his sons and daughters killed one after another, (see My Daughter’s Suicide - Open Letter On Stalin’s Role in the Death of Zinaida Volkov, January 1933), together with many of his party comrades, and finally being assassinated by an agent of Stalin in 1940 in Mexico.
The Stalinist bureaucracy defended its interests as a caste standing above society with the most brutal methods. We condemn those methods and stand with the victims who tried to stop the Stalinist counter-revolution, but we do not stand with the western bourgeois who condemn the Soviet Union because it was based on the nationalised, planned economy established by the Russian Revolution.
Did Lenin consider peaceful transformation?
Ultra-left simpletons believe that what is required is to shout about violent, bloody revolution, armed struggle, etc., and present revolutionary methods as necessarily violent. That way their revolutionary credentials are guaranteed. They ignore the fact that Marx, Engels and Lenin at different times considered a peaceful transition to socialism, depending on the concrete conditions of each country and situation.
The same Lenin who wrote, “The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution” in The State and Revolution, in August/September 1917, that is during a crucial moment of the Russian Revolution, also looked at the conditions where peaceful transition would be possible. Just a few months later, in April 1918 he wrote “Left-wing Childishness and the petty-bourgeois mentality”, where he looked at Marx’s view that in certain conditions a peaceful transformation of society was possible.
After the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx drew certain conclusions about the nature of future socialist revolutions. In a letter to Kugelmann he wrote, “If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire you will find that I say that the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people's revolution on the Continent.” (Marx to Dr Kugelmann Concerning the Paris Commune, April 12-17, 1871)
And yet, the same Marx in an interview a few months later stated the following: “In England, for instance, the way to show political power lies open to the working class. Insurrection would be madness where peaceful agitation would more swiftly and surely do the work. In France, a hundred laws of repression and a mortal antagonism between classes seem to necessitate the violent solution of social war.” (Karl Marx in Interview with Karl Marx Head of L'Internationale, published in the New York World, July 18, 1871)
As we can see, Marx did not lay down a rigid rule on this question, that could be applied to all situations and all countries. But let us look at the conditions in which such peaceful transformation could take place. In Left-wing Childishness and the petty-bourgeois mentality Lenin, writing about the conditions in Britain in the 1870s, stated the following:
“The subordination of the capitalists to the workers in Britain would have been assured at that time owing to the following circumstances: (1) the absolute preponderance of workers, of proletarians, in the population owing to the absence of a peasantry (in Britain in the seventies there was hope of an extremely rapid spread of socialism among agricultural labourers); (2) the excellent organisation of the proletariat in trade unions (Britain was at that time the leading country in the world in this respect); (3) the comparatively high level of culture of the proletariat, which had been trained by centuries of development of political liberty; (4) the old habit of the well-organised British capitalists of settling political and economic questions by compromise—at that time the British capitalists were better organised than the capitalists of any country in the world (this superiority has now passed to Germany). These were the circumstances which at that time gave rise to the idea that the peaceful subjugation of the British capitalists by the workers was possible.”
Those conditions did not apply to Russia in 1917, where the proletariat, far from being “preponderant”, was a very small minority. This goes a long way to explaining the bloody civil war that ensued. The other important element is also the isolation of the Russian Revolution, which allowed imperialism to throw everything it could at the revolution. Had the revolution broken out in Germany, things would have been very different. Lenin makes this very point in Left-wing Childishness and the petty-bourgeois mentality when he states:
“A successful proletarian revolution in Germany would immediately and very easily smash any shell of imperialism (which unfortunately is made of the best steel, and hence cannot be broken by the efforts of any... chicken) and would bring about the victory of world socialism for certain, without any difficulty, or with slight difficulty—if, of course, by “difficulty” we mean difficult on a world historical scale, and not in the parochial philistine sense.”
Had the German Revolution followed on in 1918 – as it could have done if one looks at the history – the Russian Civil War would have been cut across and much violence would have been avoided. The violence was not a foregone conclusion and was not something the Bolsheviks desired. It was forced on them by the way things panned out concretely. The Bolsheviks would have much preferred to begin the task of building up the Soviet economy. There was much discussion and debate in early 1918 about the different methods that could be adopted, including joint ventures with foreign and Russian capitalists, concessions and so on. Lenin even considered the possibility of buying out capitalists and bringing the best of them on board to use their skills in developing Russian industry. But the Civil war ruled this out and all the resources had to be concentrated on winning the war.
Returning to the conditions Lenin outlines for Britain in the 1870s, what we have to consider here is that Britain at that time was the most developed capitalist country in the world, with the strongest and most organised working class. As Lenin put it, “the absolute preponderance of workers, of proletarians, in the population” was one of the key elements. Today the conditions described by Lenin in reference to Britain in the 1870s are no longer an exception, but the norm in vast areas of the globe. Thus, some of the conditions that existed in 1870s Britain, apply even more today.
Are Marxists in favour of violence?
The capitalists and their media like to present Marxists as wanting violent revolution. They do this while pretending they are for non-violent methods themselves. They surely must be aware of the irony of what they are saying! The bourgeoisie is the most destructive and violent of all ruling classes that have ever appeared in history, as this article amply demonstrates. All history confirms that no ruling class has ever given up its wealth, power and privileges without a fight—and a bloody one at that.
The truth is that Marxists do not advocate violence. We take part in elections, support mass workers’ party and aim to get representatives elected where we have the forces to do so. At the same time, however, we do not sow illusions in the peaceful nature of the bourgeoisie. When their vital interests are at risk, the dictatorship of the banks and big corporations shows its real face. We saw this in Britain during the miners’ strike in the 1980s when thousands of police were deployed in a violent manner to crush the strike. We have seen it on a much bigger scale throughout this article. The same bourgeoisie which likes to present itself as democratic and reasonable can very easily resort to violent repression when needed.
In a bourgeois democracy we have the superficial trappings of the “rule of the people”, but in reality everything is geared to defending the interests of a handful of bankers and capitalists. Their voices carry much more weight than millions of ordinary working people. It is sufficient to see what they are doing to the National Health Service in Britain today and other countries. It is in the interests of ordinary people that more funding be provided to make it an efficient service. Instead it is being run down in preparation for privatisation. This will only benefit the few and not the many. Where is the democracy in this?
We have shown abundantly clearly that the capitalist class of all countries is not opposed to violence per se. The violence they abhor is that of the workers and exploited masses when they defend themselves against the violent repression meted about by the forces of the state. This was the position that Kerensky found himself in back in 1917, when he expressed the idea that he could not come out with force against the reactionaries, but when it came to re-establishing order that was another matter. In the second volume of his History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky explains Kerensky’s position:
“When Kerensky reiterated that he did not wish to be the Marat of the Russian revolution, that meant that he would refuse to take severe measures against the reaction, but not so against ‘anarchy.’ Generally speaking, by the way, that is the moral of the opponents of violence in politics: they renounce violence when it comes to introducing changes in what already exists, but in defense of the existing order they will not stop at the most ruthless acts.” (Chapter 29, Kerensky and Kornilov)
Thus, we see here two weights and two measures. When those wishing to put an end to centuries of class oppression rise up then no measure to put them down is considered too severe, but when it comes to reactionary forces rising up against revolution, they are left to do their work and violence - that is the violence of the workers - suddenly becomes “unacceptable”. No wonder then that “Kerensky became the especially beloved figure of the possessing classes.” (ibid.)
Returning to the Bolsheviks: were they guilty of using violent methods? The answer to that is, of course they were “guilty”, just as the slaves who rose up under the leadership of Spartacus were guilty of violence against the Roman slave-owners, or the peasants were guilty of violence against the feudal landowners in the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in England when they banded together and turned on the landowners, burning down their houses, killing some of the more unpopular ones, while others were captured and humiliated.
However, it does not have to be like this. Society has gone through several phases of development, slavery giving way to feudalism in Europe, and in turn feudalism giving way to capitalism. These passages from one form of society to another were not peaceful affairs. The classes who held power refused to accept the will of the people. If the rich and powerful would graciously exit the stage of history then the passage to the new society would be a peaceful one. Unfortunately, they are rather attached to their lives of luxury and opulence and will not go without a fight.
It is for fear of such violent reaction that the reformists within the labour movement always advise “moderation”. Of course it is only the working people who must maintain this dignified moderation. By this what is meant is that in the face of draconian cuts to healthcare, education, housing, wages and pensions, the workers are supposed to grin and bear it.
A recently published Rowntree Foundation report has shown that in Britain the number of people living below the poverty line has increased from 15 to 19 million in the past six years, as wages have not kept up with inflation. This is part of the “molecular process of revolution” as Trotsky put it. At some point, under these pressures, the working class will reach its limit. And unfortunately for the ladies and gentlemen of the ruling class, history shows that when that limit is reached the working class springs into action in an attempt to hold on to what it has gained and to change society in the process.
Moderation at times of acute class conflict only leads to one thing, violence, the violence of the capitalist class. How can this be avoided? There is a force in society that is far stronger than even the most powerful state: the working class once it is organized and mobilized to change society.
How could a peaceful transition be guaranteed? Certainly not by holding back the working class and appealing for moderation. All of history shows this.
Today the working class is not a minority as it was in Russia in 1917. On a global scale, the working class has never been so strong, both numerically and in terms of its specific weight within society. The majority of the world population now lives in cities. “54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050”, according to a UN report. There are around 400million metal workers alone, and the overall world workforce is now around 2.5bn. If you add to these children, non-working partners, pensioners, etc., the working class is clearly the majority on a worldwide scale.
In the advanced industrialised countries, the weight of the working class – by this we mean wage workers – is even greater. In the advanced capitalist countries, such as Britain for example, 75% of the working population is employed for a wage, thus making “wage labour” the overwhelming majority of society. If there were a revolutionary leadership of the working class, this force could be mobilised to paralyse the whole system, and there is no state force of repression that can hold back the whole of the working population once mobilised. We have seen revolutions that have mobilised such massive forces, that the most oppressive of regimes have collapsed like houses of cards. Imagine what would be possible in the most industrialised countries of the world if the working class were mobilised in such a manner. No force on earth could stop it!
As we have explained in an earlier article, “A peaceful transformation of society would be entirely possible if the trade union and reformist leaders were prepared to use the colossal power in their hands to change society. If the workers leaders did not do this, then there could be rivers of blood, and this would entirely be the responsibility of the reformist leaders.”
Thus, the only way of guaranteeing the most peaceful transition possible is to use the full might of the organised working class. If a revolutionary party and leadership stood at the head of the working class, when the conditions are ripe a general strike could be called, bringing out workers in all economic sectors, who would occupy their workplaces. An appeal would also be issued to the students and school students to occupy their places of study. Faced with such a mass mobilisation there would be no force that could stop the workers. In fact, the revolutionary mood would also affect the lower layers of the police and army. All revolutions show that this happens. Many ordinary rank and file police and soldiers emanate from the working class, and once the class they come from moves in a decisive manner some layers would instinctively be drawn to that movement.
In Chile 1973 it is not at all by chance that the bulk of the troops were held in the barracks and only a minority of elite corps were used to carry out the repression. That was possible, not because the working class was weak, but because it had been disarmed politically by its own leadership.
It is not the revolutionary Marxists who work for violent overthrow of the present system. On the contrary, we work to create the most favourable conditions for the taking of power by the working class in as peaceful a manner as possible. That means, however, that the full force of the class must be mobilised. The overwhelming power of the organised working class pulling behind other oppressed layers of society would be an unstoppable force. Not to fully mobilise it, as the reformists in the movements advocate, only prepares the conditions for a violent suppression of the workers as they strive to change society.
History has confirmed this over and over again. It is time to draw the lessons of the past. Not to do so, would mean, in the long run, a terrible defeat not just for the working class, but for the whole of humanity. It would unleash barbarism of unimaginable proportions. It is the task of the Marxists to explain this and struggle to win first the advanced layers and then the whole class to the programme of Marxism. There is no nobler task than this today.