Marxism and war

60 years ago on September 3rd 1939 World War broke out for the second time in 25 years. The horrors of the trenches of Flanders and Mons were never supposed to be repeated again. The Great War of 1914-18 was meant to be the war to end all wars. 9 million had died. Yet only 21 years later a second and still more terrifying conflict erupted. Between 1939 and 1945 55 million were slaughtered and civilisation itself was brought to the very brink of extinction. Karl Marx's prediction that the future of humanity would be either "socialism or barbarism" appeared to be approaching a terrible conclusion.

In the second half of this century however, war appeared to be an aberration rather than the norm, at least if you lived in the advanced west. The majority of humanity, living in the gutter conditions of the third world, experienced hardly a day of peace throughout these years. But at least in the advanced industrialised capitalist countries war appeared to have become a thing of the past. Surely today civilised men and women sit around a table and negotiate themselves out of a conflict?

In short, workers in the west have grown used to peace. Yet a brief study of our own history reveals that it was this temporary peace which was the aberration. In fact as the Russian anarchist Kropotkin put it a century ago, "war is the normal condition of Europe." In recent months that has been underlined in blood by the war in Kosovo, the first war in Europe since 1945. The relatively short period of uncertain peace in international relations has dramatically ended. The cold war stand off between Stalinist Russia and US imperialism has been replaced not by a New World Order but by No World Order. On a world scale we have entered a new epoch of wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions, an epoch in which ultimately the fate of humanity will be decided. The crisis of capitalism is a two-sided coin, not only private ownership of the economy, but also the division of the world into competing nation states has outlived itself. As a consequence there will be mighty battles between the classes in society and also between nation states. Such great events put every tendency, and every theory to the test. They shake society from top to bottom, they make history. In a dramatic and explosive period such as this it is necessary to go back to basics on every question if we are not to be blown off course. What attitude do Marxists take towards war?

"War is the continuation of policy by other means." Every first year student will be familiar with this celebrated aphorism of General von Clausewitz. But what exactly does it mean? In reality it is an extremely profound expression which more accurately divulges the inner meaning of war than the million and one potted histories and psychological profiles which litter the bookshelves of every library.

War as we all know refers to military conflict, between nations, or within nations. The "means" are obviously violent. But what "policy" is being continued? If war is merely the continuation of a policy adopted in peace time then why should we have a different attitude toward that policy in time of war?

In the same vein Leon Trotsky explained that "foreign policy is an extension of home policy." The home policy of the capitalists is a capitalist policy and so is their foreign policy. The peacetime policy of capitalism is determined by their class interests, profit, privilege and prestige. This policy is continued in war, which simply carries the horrors of capitalism to their limits. We can have no confidence in the capitalist system in war any more than we can in peace.

For some, even those who call themselves Marxists, the minute war breaks out, all sense flies out of the window. "Whose side are you on?" they yell. Apparently acknowledging the class division of society in time of peace, suddenly they rush to find one side in any conflict more progressive than another, they then wave their banners and scarves like fans at a football match, supporting their team. While thousands, or even millions die. Everything is either black or white, good or evil, and it is this empirical outlook which condemns them to sit in the camp of one reaction or another, rather than maintaining a position based on the interests of the working class.


Of course Marxists are not pacifists, but it is necessary to distance ourselves from the bloodthirsty ravings of those who claim to be 'rrrevolutionary.' We are not pacifists, but only madmen are in favour of violence, and positively lust after it as though the more blood in the streets the more revolutionary the events. Yet we all know that these individuals, the first to clamour for a fight, would run a mile at the first sight of any real conflict.

On the other hand the most pacifist of Labour leaders can become the crudest of warmongers once conflict breaks out as Labour Lefts like Ken Livingstone and Michael Foot demonstrated during the recent conflict in Kosovo. It should come as no surprise meanwhile that the Blairites, whose policy is no different to the Tories in peace time, whose home policy is based on the interests of capitalism, should maintain that same policy in war. The reformists of all shades refuse to see the class division of society and it is this that blinds them to the realities of war.

Surely though the war against Hitler was a just war? We could not sit idly by and allow Hitler to slaughter his way across Europe. Indeed not. There can be no question that socialists could be anything other than 100% opposed to Hitler, the question however was how best to defeat him, whose forces could be trusted to carry the job through to a conclusion, and what kind of society should be built out of the ashes of Europe. British and later US imperialism did not fight the Second World War because they were horrified by the ghoulish regime of the fascist madmen, any more than they had fought the First World War to save "poor little Belgium." In both cases it was first and foremost a question of markets. In reality the Second World War was a continuation of the first, Germany required a redivision of the world.

Fight Hitler

Marxists were entirely in favour of fighting a war against Hitler, however we pointed out that workers could have no faith in the British capitalists who had helped Hitler to rearm and allowed him to occupy Austria and Czechoslovakia. It was clearly in the interests of all workers to defeat Hitler, but not to prop up Churchill or the rotten system which had allowed fascism to gain power in the first place. In response to Churchill's appeal for the nation to appear united Aneurin Bevan replied "The fear of Hitler is to be used to frighten the workers of Britain into silence. In short Hitler is to rule Britain by proxy. If we accept that the common enemy is Hitler and not the British capitalist class, then certainly Churchill's right. But it means the abandonment of the class struggle and the subservience of British workers to their own employers." (Quoted in Nye Bevan by John Campbell, p.77) Although Bevan supported the war he was the most outspoken critic of Churchill and of British capital in the leadership of the Labour Party. In fact we would go further than Bevan. The attempt to unite British workers behind their own ruling class in war could only have succeeded in rallying German workers behind Hitler.

British workers understandably and correctly wanted to fight the fascists. The Marxists too wanted to fight Hitler, the question was which class can be trusted to lead that fight. In American Problems, Trotsky explained that American workers (and the same applies to British workers) "do not want to be conquered by Hitler, and to those who say 'let us have a peace programme' the workers will reply 'but Hitler does not want a peace programme.' Therefore we say that we will defend the US with a workers' army, workers' officers and with a workers government." We can have no faith in the capitalist class, if it were in their interest they would sign secret treaties as they have done many times in their history. In order to carry the war to its conclusion, to defeat Hitler, and the rotten system which had propelled him to power in the first place, it would be necessary to change the class in power. In the same way in Britain Marxists demanded that Labour break with the Tories and introduce a socialist programme. The only forces the working class can depend upon in war or peace are their own.

In the war between British and German imperialism we were opposed to Hitler but we did not support any imperialist power. The position of the Soviet Union however is somewhat different. Despite the filthy lies of the Stalinists depicting him as a fascist agent, Trotsky maintained a class position in relation to the war and stood for the unconditional defence of the Soviet Union in the face of an imperialist threat, while at the same time arguing for a political revolution to overthrow the monstrous Stalinist bureaucracy. The position of Russian workers, Trotsky argued, should be 'we will not cede to Hitler the task of overthrowing Stalin, that is our job.'

Even and despite the horrific crimes of Stalinism, and remember it was the policies of Stalin which had allowed Hitler to come to power in the first place, in spite of the monstrous totalitarian dictatorship they had built over the bones of the Russian revolution, Trotsky's attitude was determined by the class nature of the Russian state, and the need to defend what remained of the gains made by the October revolution.

Initially, Stalin signed a pact with Hitler, once again betraying the interests of the international working class, demonstrating just how far their national and reformist degeneration had gone, a process concluded in 1943 with the dissolution of the Communist International. Soviet foreign policy had become an extension of their home policy, the defence of the position of the bureaucracy. This had nothing in common with the spotless tradition of internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky.

Soviet Union

When the Soviet Union entered the war in 1941, its military firepower was actually superior to that of the Wehrmacht. Thanks to Stalin's purges which had wiped out the bulk of the general staff, this supremacy did not last. To begin with Stalin paralysed his own troops by ordering them not to resist during the first 48 hours. As a result their advantage dissolved and thousands of Red Army soldiers were captured. Contrary to the myths about Stalin 'the Great War Leader' this despot endangered all the gains of the 1917 revolution. These were what Trotsky insisted must be defended. In the end it was these gains, principally the nationalised planned economy, which saved the Soviet Union. Very rapidly, once its attention was focused on the war effort, the Soviet economy was able to build tanks and guns not only in greater quantity but also of superior quality to those of both Germany and the allies. Even in terms of planes the Soviet economy was at least able to match Germany who, remember, had the combined resources of Europe behind it. In the Second World War the superiority of planning was demonstrated not in the pages of Capital but in the language of production, even capitalist nations like Britain were forced to introduce large elements of planning into their economies.

In the end the Second World War became a giant confrontation between Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, in which the superiority of economic planning, at root the class nature of the state, (and Trotsky explained that in the end this was the only feature which distinguished Stalin's regime from Hitler's), was victorious. The Red Army drove the Wehrmacht all the way back to Berlin.

The Second World War turned out to be a giant miscalculation by all the imperialist powers, the victory of the Soviet Union leading to the loss of half of Europe for capitalism. Were it not for the role once again of the Stalinist and reformist workers' leaders following the war it would have led to the end of capitalism across the globe, but that question will have to be dealt with elsewhere.

For Marxists, the defence of the gains of the Russian revolution was in the interests of the working class. However, to quote Nye Bevan again, "It is not enough to offer to the people of Belgium, France, and this country merely the defence of the institutions of democracy against the threat of Nazi dictatorship, because they recognise that, after all, it is that sort of democracy that brought Europe to war." (ibid, P.98) In any case the defence of democracy by the allies was rank hypocrisy. They were defending nothing more profound than their material interests. Writing in 1938 Leon Trotsky pointed out that "Truly one must have an empty head to reduce antagonism and military conflicts to the struggle between fascism and democracy. Under all masks one must know how to distinguish exploiters, slave-owners and robbers."

Wars are not fought for the sake of killing but in order to conquer resources, raw materials, and markets. In other words for profit. That is the "policy" being continued. However left like this we would have a pretty vulgar view of war. In many cases it may be difficult to perceive the immediate economic gains to be made in a conflict. What can be seen however are the class interests which lie at the heart of all conflicts, in peace time and in war.

It is these class interests with which we must concern ourselves. In wars between capitalist nations to capture markets, raw materials or spheres of influence, whether fought by major powers or, as so often today, by smaller powers acting as the proxies of greater nations, there is nothing progressive to be found. Such wars are reactionary on all sides.

Our attitude to war cannot be determined simply by the undoubted horror of suffering and death it entails for both the civilian population and the ranks of the troops, but only by the class interests of those waging war. Marxists are irreconcilably opposed to any war waged by the capitalist ruling class. The working class has nothing to gain from capitalism in peacetime or war.


Where an oppressed nation fights against imperialism it is of course rational to support the defeat of imperialism, that is in the interests of the international workers movement.

Would this not also have been the case in relation to the Falklands war? There were so-called revolutionary groups who believed the defeat of Britain would be the best outcome, and in their usual black and white style therefore supported the Argentine junta's claim on the Malvinas.

The "which side are you on" gang invariably supported Argentina on the grounds that it was a colonial country facing imperialist aggression. These people never allow reality to interfere with their clever schema. Argentina is a highly developed economy. The landowners are bourgeois not feudal barons, the vast majority live in the cities where there is a powerful centre of finance capital, and in Buenos Aires a famous stock exchange. The junta's motives were the defence of Argentina's big business interests. Above all it was the social crisis in Argentina which prompted the invasion of the Falklands in an attempt to divert the anger of Argentinean workers against British imperialism rather than their own regime.

The Labour leaders in Britain simply tail-ended the Tories, painting Galtieri as the aggressor and posing as the defenders of the Islanders. Indeed Galtieri was a dictator, but certainly no worse than Margaret Thatcher's big pal Pinochet in neighbouring Chile. This conflict had nothing to do with ousting a dictatorial regime, still less with defending the Islanders, and everything to do with Britain's prestige as a 'world power'. This was not a question of 'who started it,' or of democracy versus fascism, but the class interests of the Argentinean ruling class and the class interests of the British ruling class.

Although there are only around 1800 of them, the rights and interests of the Islanders have to be taken seriously. The Islands had been in British possession for 150 years, the population was entirely English speaking and of British descent. Galtieri's claim to the Islands was purely imperialist - to loot and to prevent revolution on the streets of Buenos Aires. The interests of the Islanders were the last thing on the Tories' minds too. Galtieri would probably have been unable to invade in the first place were it not for the incompetence of Thatcher and Foreign Secretary Carrington. They would probably have been willing to reach a compromise with Galtieri even after the seizure of the Islands in order to help prop up his regime. But they had forgotten the importance of prestige in international relations. If it had been in the interests of British imperialism the Islanders would have been sold out as blatantly as the people of Kosovo. Like the Kosovars the Islanders were merely pawns in the power games of imperialism. To have allowed Argentina to keep possession of the Falklands, however would have meant the end of British imperialism on the world stage. This was the class interest they were defending not the rights of the Islanders. In reality the war was not in the interests of the Argentine workers, British workers or the Islanders. It was waged in the class interests of the British capitalists and the Argentine capitalists and therefore we opposed the capitalist war of Argentina against Britain and the capitalist war of Britain against Argentina.

Marxists in Argentina would have exposed the inconsistencies of the junta, which in reality was tied to American and British imperialism, and the mess they'd made of the economy. They would have argued skilfully that a victory over powerful British imperialism would have been impossible by military means alone, especially under the totalitarian junta. The officer caste were quite incapable of waging a revolutionary war, which would have been the only way Argentina could have defeated Britain. For that it would have been necessary to change the class in power, to hand Argentina back to the Argentines by expropriating foreign capital, and taking over industry and agriculture in order to enable the economy to be planned and its resources to be used efficiently. The workers of Argentina could then have appealed to the workers and soldiers of Britain, proposing a socialist federation of Argentina, the Falklands and a socialist Britain, and also to the workers of Latin America to boot out imperialism and capitalism and establish a socialist federation of Latin America.

In this war between two imperialist powers we were against both sides. Of course we were in favour of defending the rights of the Islanders, but we could have no faith in the Tories or their system to defend them. Instead we demanded a general election, and for a Labour government to introduce a socialist programme.

Socialist Britain

Such a socialist Britain could, if it had still been necessary, have waged a war alongside our Argentinean brothers and sisters to overthrow the military regime and establish a socialist Argentina. Then on the basis of a socialist federation full autonomy could be guaranteed to the Falkland Islanders. As explained earlier if you want to change the character of the war then you have to change the class in power, the class waging war.

War cannot be reduced to a question of 'who started it' like some school playground scrap. Many on the left in an effort to justify their support for one side or another in a war seek an excuse in the act of aggression. We must oppose the aggressor. This pacifist starting point inevitably leads you onto the path of supporting one or another ruling class in a war rather than consistently defending the interests of the working class in all circumstances.

It is ironic indeed that in their headlong rush to oppose Milosevic many of these same people found themselves in bed not only with the KLA but also with US imperialism, the most counter revolutionary force on the planet.

Trotsky predicted that the US would gain this position of pre-eminence, but at the same time explained that they would have dynamite built into their foundations. This was never more clearly revealed than in the case of the Vietnam war.

US imperialism

Marxists always support the poor, oppressed and enslaved in their struggle against the rich and powerful imperialist states. Therefore we gave wholehearted support to the struggle of Ho Chi Minh's 'Communist' Party in their peasant guerrilla war against US and world imperialism, because this was a colonial war for liberation. We would have supported such a war even under bourgeois leadership. However in the modern epoch the national bourgeoisie are incapable of leading such a struggle. Despite occasional bouts of anti-imperialist rhetoric, they are tied by a million and one threads to imperialism and the giant monopolies and banks. Therefore the struggle for national emancipation becomes a struggle too for social liberation, i.e., for the elimination of capitalism and landlordism as well as the expulsion of imperialism.

Such a guerrilla war on its own however, could not lead to the establishment of socialism. In the absence of healthy workers states in the advanced west to provide the necessary material and technological assistance, such a war inevitably leads in the direction of a deformed workers state in the image of Stalinist Russia. That is why we not only supported the struggle of the workers and peasants for social and national liberation but we also warned them that under a Stalinist leadership, although their victory would mark a big step forward, it would be followed by further enslavement under a totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship. We appealed to workers in the west to support their struggle. Their victory would mean the weakening of imperialism. Yet we never deceived ourselves or the workers that such a victory would lead to socialism.

How could such a mighty military machine as US imperialism be defeated by the barefoot Vietnamese? If war were purely an arithmetic equation based on numbers of troops and quantities of explosives then clearly such an outcome would not have been possible. However there is also the vital question of morale, and even more importantly, the home front. The Vietnam war was lost in America not in South East Asia. The repercussions of that defeat are still felt today. This explains the reluctance of the US to dispatch ground troops, they try instead to bomb nations into submission as we've witnessed to devastating effect in Iraq and Yugoslavia. Had there been a powerful Marxist force in the US at the time of the Vietnam war, the issue of the war itself would have been enough to spark a revolution.

The new period of antagonisms on a world scale will result in more military conflict and wanton destruction. The survival of capitalism makes new wars inevitable. Military expenditure becomes an increasing burden on the shoulders of the state. Just one B2 stealth bomber for example, cost more to build than the GDP of Albania. While spending on health and education is cut back, the military expenditure of 6 of the richest nations per head of population is staggering: US $804, France $642, Germany $355, UK $484, Italy $356, Canada $253.

With a dialectical approach, basing ourselves on the interests of our class, we would be able to build the forces of Marxism on this question alone. Those who abandon a class approach to the question of war however will find themselves like the tightrope walker without a stick, unbalanced, and certain to fall to earth with a bang.

In the end all serious questions are settled by war. The biggest question of all, the future of humanity will be settled by the war between the classes. However much we wish this weren't the case, to hide from this truth can only lead to defeat, and further terrible wars between the nations. Far better to recognise this truth now and start building a revolutionary force that can change the world. The working class represents the overwhelming majority of the population and once it is conscious of its power it will be possible to carry out a transformation of society quite peacefully and create a new world without borders and conflicts, whose only wars are against poverty, illiteracy, ignorance and disease.

by Phil Mitchinson,
London, September, 2000

Together with this brief article we recommend to all our readers the writings of Trotsky on war: