War, peace and class struggle: Marxism vs. pacifism

The question of violence is often posed as an abstract theoretical one. Pacifists cordon off the concept of ‘violence’ and treat it apart from every other aspect of human relations. But as the military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said: “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. Declaring opposition to violence ‘in general’ is as meaningless and utopian as declaring opposition to politics ‘in general’. We must be concrete. What kind of violence are we opposed to? And how do we struggle against it?

The Sudanese Revolution

To offer a recent example, for the Sudanese revolution of 2019, the question of violence was not posed in the abstract. The revolutionary movement threatened the total destruction of the old regime of Omar al-Bashir. The ruling military junta could only preserve itself through violence.

After a series of powerful general strikes and revolutionary sit-ins that crippled the country, the generals unleashed a violent militia to clear out the sit-ins and massacre the masses in Khartoum. They used terror to pressure the revolutionary leadership into accepting a ‘power share’ between the military and civilian leaders.

Sudan Rev Image fair useIn the Sudanese revolution of 2019, the question of violence was not posed in the abstract: it became a matter of kill or be killed for the revolutionaries / Image: fair use

In 2021, a military coup against the civilian Prime Minister caused a new upsurge of the revolution, which was in turn met with brutal violence by the junta, which is back in charge and continues to use violence against the people to this day.

The only way for the masses to protect themselves, and for the aims of that revolution to be carried through, would’ve been to arm the working class: for the leaders of the revolution to give them weapons to defend themselves, set up committees of self-defence, and fight the militias.

For the revolution, it was kill or be killed.

But the leadership of the Sudanese revolution, which to its credit went very far in organising the struggle, nevertheless sacrificed the revolution on the altar of abstract pacifism.

Jacobin magazine published an interview with one of the leaders of the Sudanese movement in 2019. She said:

“One of the things that kept us alive is that we were peaceful. So, no matter how they try to provoke us to use violence, people wouldn’t. No matter how many times they try to kill and rape girls and put us in prison. People have a lot of anger, disappointment, sadness, but we kept ourselves peaceful. It wasn’t easy but that’s how it was.”

These warm pacifist sentiments are of little use to all those workers who have been and are being beaten, raped, and killed fighting military dictatorship in Sudan. That pacifism stopped the revolution in its tracks, and is a reason for the ongoing suffering of the Sudanese masses today.

Events in Sudan prove, not in theory but in practice, that pacifism is debilitating poison for the revolutionary movement. Marxism and pacifism have nothing in common.

Capitalism, war, and violence

Marxists take the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Violence and war are not external aberrations to capitalism. They’re not the product of mistakes or accidents. They’re built into capitalism’s foundations. As long as the capitalist system exists, violence will be a fact of life.

Marxists don’t shut their eyes to facts and wish they didn’t exist. We try to understand why they exist, and use that to bring about change.

The Sudanese military leaders used violence against their own people because they wanted to protect the interests of the Sudanese ruling class, and their imperialist cronies.

When nations go to war with each other it’s because, in the last analysis, they want to protect the interests of their own national ruling classes and their imperialist aspirations.

The capitalist state wages war, sometimes against its own people, and sometimes against rival states. But at all times it is acting simply as a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.

That bourgeoisie needs violence because capitalism is based upon antagonisms between classes, as the ruling class tries to maintain the exploitation of the workers. There are also antagonisms between different cliques of bourgeois, represented by their nation states and driven by capitalist competition.

The capitalist class has many weapons to fight the workers of its own nation and the capitalists of other nations, such as propaganda or diplomacy. But ultimately, history shows us that naked force is the only method by which capitalism can maintain itself in the long run.

The aim of any ruling class has always been to maintain economic advantage. Violence is just a means to achieve that. War is waged, not for its own sake, but to conquer new markets, raw materials and spheres of influence, and to preserve the position of the capitalist class.

If war is the continuation of politics by other means, and politics, Lenin said, is concentrated economics, then war, politics and economics are intertwined.

Trotsky pointed out that the aims of an imperialist ‘peace’ are no different to those of an imperialist war. Capitalist states, even in peacetime, are organised systems of violence for the exploitation and oppression of the majority by the minority, through the police, army, courts and prisons. The violent methods of class rule to preserve bourgeois interests domestically find their twin in wars abroad.

War and violence are an inherent part of the capitalist system. The latter cannot exist without the former.

How do revolutionaries seek to end violence and war?

The only conclusion from this is that, to end violence and war, we must overthrow capitalism. We cannot persuade or convince the capitalists to be less violent when violence is built into the foundations of their system. We have to smash that system to end the violence.

In particular, we must break up the institutions of organised violence of the bourgeois class, such as the police and the army, using force if we must. This is revolutionary policy, both in times of capitalist ‘peace’ and in times of capitalist war.

In times of bourgeois ‘peace’, strikes might be the weapon that workers use against the bosses, eventually with strike committees and workers’ councils as alternatives to bourgeois state power. We would demand nationalisation under workers’ control of key industries; and many other things. This is how we break the economic and political power of the ruling class that allows them to concentrate the forces of violence in their hands.

In times of imperialist war our policies have that same aim, adapted to the different circumstances. In the Second World War, for example, the Trotskyists in Britain adopted what was known as the Proletarian Military Policy.

British workers instinctively understood the threat posed by fascism, and therefore wanted to fight Hitler. This was a progressive sentiment that needed to be stimulated, but without giving any support to Churchill and the British ruling class.

The Proletarian Military Policy was a fight on two fronts. On the one hand, the Marxists called on workers to join the struggle against the Nazi armies, while at the same time agitating among the soldiers for their democratic rights, against Churchill’s use of the British army against Greek partisans, for example, and at all times exposing the imperialist character of the British ruling class.

On the other hand, on the Home Front, the Trotskyists agitated for strikes against the big capitalists profiting off the war effort. The approach could be summed up as: no confidence in the capitalist class to fight Hitler; the workers must rely on their own strength to defeat fascism.

In this way, the Proletarian Military Policy aimed to break the repressive power of the ruling class by breaking the commanding rule of the officers in the army. It didn’t reject the use of violence on principle, because to do so would have been to cut themselves off from the healthy class instincts of many workers. The policy towards war was not pacifist, but designed to smash capitalist militarism.

At all times the revolutionary approach to ending violence and war is to smash the capitalist state and overthrow the capitalist system as a whole. This is the only realistic way to do it, because it’s the only way that tackles the problem at its root.

War and class struggle

This means that we’re not for or against war and violence ‘in general’. We base our policy on a given, concrete situation. Wars waged for the liberation of oppressed people and classes are progressive and we support them. But wars waged in the interests of imperialism, even if they are described as ‘defensive’ or for the ‘right of nations to self-determination’, are reactionary and we oppose them.

The violence used by the slave owner to keep a slave in chains is not the same for us as the violence used by the slave to break those chains. Violence used in self-defence is not the same as the violence of an aggressor.

The revolutionary war, which should have been waged by the leaders of the Sudanese movement against the military junta, could have broken the repressive forces of the bourgeois Sudanese state. And so, despite the violence and bloodshed, which we condemn as an inevitable product of class society, such a war would have been historically progressive.

What is pacifism?

Pacifists, however, reject these ideas. Pacifists see non-violence as a moral norm, obligatory upon all, for all time. But society is not governed by fixed, abstract morality. It’s governed by the struggle of living, historical forces expressed through classes.

Part of the role of Marxists is to expose the causes of war, to analyse a given war’s historical significance, and to tell the truth to the working class about capitalism and imperialism.

WW1 Image public domainWoodrow Wilson was a 'pacifist' until American bourgeois interests changed, at which point he led the US into the First World War / Image: public domain

This is necessary because the ruling class deliberately obscures the real reasons for war. A wing of the ruling class often appeals to the abstract idea of ‘pacifism’ as a calculated deception to mask the class-based nature of its actions.

In 2003 George Bush and Tony Blair said they wanted to invade Iraq to destroy weapons of mass destruction and secure world peace. In fact, The Iraq war was about oil. It was fought in the interests of Western capitalists, and had nothing to do with preserving peace.

Similarly, Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 US Presidential election on a pacifist programme. It suited the US ruling class to avoid war at that time, so that it could profit further from the war through arms sales and other means. In that sense, Wilson’s slogan of ‘peace’ was a cover for bourgeois interests.

Within a year, the interests of US imperialism had changed. So that same pacifist, Woodrow Wilson, led the US into the First World War. This is the cynicism with which the ruling class treats the idea of ‘pacifism’.

Marxists expose this hypocrisy. But the petty-bourgeoisie and the reformists kowtow to it. They prop up the lies of the bourgeoisie about their desire for ‘peace’. They consider war to be the product, not of the insoluble contradictions of capitalism, but of individual madness or mistakes.

This is why the leaders of the Second International – so-called Marxists leading Social Democratic parties – voted in favour of the First World War. They supported the propaganda of their own ruling classes that they were fighting a defensive war for peace against bloodthirsty foreign enemies.

And this is why Jeremy Corbyn, former leader of the UK Labour Party, advocates the bourgeois lie that the United Nations is a force for peace, capable of persuading imperialists to avoid war.

Reformists believe that the ruling class can be persuaded not to go to war, for the same reason that they believe capitalists can be persuaded to grant economic concessions to the working class.

Fundamentally, such reformists replace a materialist analysis of society with philosophical idealism. They do not understand how the capitalist system really works – that it cannot afford long-term concessions or genuine peace in a time of crisis.

Those leaders of the Second International adapted themselves to conditions of capitalist upswing prior to 1914. And that upswing softened relations between classes and between nations. There were enough profits to keep the imperialists happy, and to afford some concessions for the working class in some countries. The social democratic leaders therefore believed that capitalism had resolved its contradictions. They saw struggle, between classes and between nations, as external to and unnecessary for development.

Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas, likewise, are the product of the post-war boom, a period in which class antagonisms were less acute. He approaches austerity and war as purely ideological questions, untouched by the laws of capitalist development and crisis.

But capitalism cannot resolve its contradictions, it can only temporarily overcome them for a period of time, such as the years before 1914 or the years after the Second World War in Europe. When the contradictions inevitably rise to the surface again, as they did in 1914 for example, struggle becomes necessary, between classes and between nations.

Under those circumstances, those reformists who have adapted themselves to class compromise and gentle international diplomacy find the ground cut away from under them. But they still try to cling to their independence from struggle.

They therefore adopt the idea, for which there is no basis in theory or practice, that it is possible to secure peace by methods outside of the class struggle and the socialist revolution, such as ‘pressure’ on the imperialists, for example. They do this and call themselves pacifists.

In reality, any real ‘pressure’ for peace has only ever been a result of the revolutionary struggle of the working class for power.

It was not liberal petitions, but the October Revolution in 1917 that extracted the Russian workers and peasants from the First World War. It was not pacifist pleading, but the German revolution of 1918 that brought that war to its conclusion. It was not moral pressure, but revolutionary councils of action and a dockworkers’ strike that forced the British to withdraw its invading army from Soviet Russia in 1920.

Pacifism, as Trotsky said, is nothing more than the servant of imperialism. Pacifists help imperialists cover up their crimes, by painting them as ideological mistakes by individuals instead of the inevitable product of capitalism and imperialism. Pacifism provides an outlet for discontent while guaranteeing no real opposition.

The United Nations embodies this pacifist impotence. It is a circus where small nations air their grievances, while big ones veto anything that goes against their interests.

The General Assembly of the United Nations has repeatedly approved resolutions condemning Israel’s violence in Palestine, only to have them vetoed by the United States in the Security Council. What a mockery of the UN’s so-called ‘peacekeeping’ role!

Equally, the UN is powerless to prevent the big powers going to war whenever they want to. The 1999 bombing campaign by NATO against Kosovo did not have UN approval. Nor did the US & UK invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 1960 the UN sent a ‘peacekeeping’ force to what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, and that resulted in the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese prime minister, and the dictatorship of Mobutu, who was a tool of imperialism. This is the powerlessness of the United Nations when it comes to securing peace.

The UN is an elaborate display of pacifism, which is hollow on the inside. Pacifists who celebrate the UN are, consciously or unconsciously, servants of the imperialist interests it conceals. They encourage the dangerous illusion that fundamental contradictions within the capitalist system are simply ideological points of view, which can be changed by persuasion.

Trotsky was merciless in his criticism of pacifists, who he saw as diverting the attention of the masses away from the real processes at work in society. He explained that you do not eliminate the danger of war by, for example, disarmament, which is a pacifist slogan. He said:

“A programme of disarmament while imperialist antagonisms survive is the most pernicious of fictions. The imperialists do not make war because there are armaments; on the contrary they forge arms when they need to fight.”

We could say the same thing of NATO, or other imperialist alliances. There are pacifists who advocate dismantling NATO to avoid war. But is it military alliances that cause war? Or is it the inevitable capitalistic tendency towards war that makes imperialist alliances necessary? Abolishing NATO will not resolve the fundamental contradictions of capitalism, which are the driving force behind war. The pacifists mistake cause for effect.

Against the pacifists, the Marxists say: we can only fight imperialist war with civil war against the capitalist class. Our slogan is not for peace, but for class war. Our enemies are not the workers of other nations but the international bourgeoisie, starting with the ruling class of our own countries.

The struggle for peace is the struggle for socialism

This is the finished programme of Marxism. But we must connect this with the mood of the masses at any given time, which is unfinished, confused and contradictory.

In most cases, the desire for peace among workers is healthy, it’s not reactionary pacifism. It’s a reaction against imperialism and bourgeois hypocrisy. Our role is to point out the hypocrisy of the capitalists when they talk about peace, and explain that the capitalist class has never been a reliable guarantor of peace, because capitalist competition between national bourgeois cliques inevitably leads to war. We also want peace, but only a workers’ state, in our own country and all others, can guarantee it.

That requires class struggle, around demands like state expenditure on public works instead of weapons, the nationalisation under workers’ control of the armaments industry, or military bases to be brought under the democratic control of the working class.

Just because workers desire peace, that doesn’t make them reactionary pacifists. Likewise, the workers’ desire to fight is not always reactionary, such as the mood among workers to fight Hitler in the Second World War, or the mood among the masses of an oppressed nation to fight for self-determination.

In such situations, the Proletarian Military Policy described earlier must be applied. This also requires class struggle around specific demands such as strike action against war profiteers, and it requires us to split the ranks of the army from the bourgeois or petty-bourgeois officers of the army.

Anti Vietnam Image public domainThe power of the working class at home can impede imperialist militarism abroad / Image: public domain

In all cases, whether the mood of the masses is for peace or for war, and taking into account all the historical and local peculiarities, we must aim to break capitalist militarism and highlight the need for the working class to pursue a policy independent of the interests of their own capitalist class.

Where this happens, even in a limited form, it can have a big effect. In 2019, a Saudi ship docked in the Italian port of Genoa to collect weapons for use in its imperialist war against Yemen. The dockworkers went on strike and refused to load the weapons. The Italian trade union confederation supported the strike, making other Italian ports also off-limits for the Saudi ship. The ship left empty. Class struggle struck a greater blow against imperialist war than any liberal pacifist NGO had been able to do.

The imperialists understand this power of the working class. It was bourgeois fear of mass domestic discontent that prevented a ground invasion of Kosovo in 1999, and which prevented the bombing of Syria by the UK in 2013. One of the reasons behind more peaceful relations between the USA and the Soviet Union in the late 1980s was the fear of revolutionary upsurge in the super-exploited ex-colonial countries.

The Vietnam War was lost for the United States, not only in Vietnam, but in the United States itself when the majority of people turned against it. This is the power of working-class struggle to disrupt imperialist plans.

Violence as a tactical question

Marxists consider wars to liberate oppressed nations and classes to be historically justified. We have no abstract, moral opposition to violence. But this does not mean that all methods of waging these wars are acceptable for Marxists.

For example, individual terrorism and guerrilla struggle, on their own and disconnected from a mass movement, do not strengthen the class struggle. They substitute the actions of a minority, or even just an individual, for the collective action of class struggle. It doesn’t strengthen the confidence of the masses in themselves as the only force that can overthrow class society.

In fact, such methods tend to strengthen the repressive apparatus of the state, which adopts harsher methods for dealing with so-called ‘terrorists’. These methods actually only strengthen the forces of bourgeois violence.

Our approach to these methods of struggle is not a moralistic question but a tactical one. Only those tactics that make the working-class conscious of its role in changing society should be used.

For decades, the appalling violence of the Israeli state against Palestine has been met by acts of individual terror, but these have failed to destroy or even weaken the state of Israel.

A mass appeal to the workers of Israel by a revolutionary Palestinian leadership would have a far greater effect. There have been huge protests in Israel in recent years. The country is not one reactionary mass, it’s divided into classes. National service in Israel has the potential to be a transmission belt for the mood of the Israeli youth into the army.

But instead of basing itself on mass methods of struggle, the Palestinian leadership has too often based itself on terror. The first Intifada which began in 1987 had a mass character but took place over the heads of the PLO leaders. As well as mobilising the Palestinian masses, it even had some, limited, effect in Israel itself. It led to real results with the Oslo Accords (although they solved nothing fundamental). This is the way to fight.

But instead of these methods, the focus on terror has widened the gap between Palestinians and those Israeli workers and youth who could have been won over. Today, the idea of splitting the Israeli army is very distant, if not impossible. In the future this could change. But this is the legacy of individual terrorist violence, disconnected from an organised mass movement, which has weakened the Palestinian struggle.

Arming the working class

We are opposed to the pacifist slogan of disarmament, and to individual terror or guerrillaism. Against those we counterpose arming the masses and splitting the army, winning over the army ranks to the working-class struggle.

Marinerosrevolucionarios Image public domainThe Bolsheviks oraganised workers into Red Guards to defend the revolution / Image: public domain

The petty-bourgeois and the reformists say that this is unrealistic. But it has happened, repeatedly, in revolutionary situations all over the world and throughout history.

In 2002, an attempted coup against the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was thwarted when the ranks of the army broke with their officers, under pressure from the mass movement, and sided with the masses.

In Italy, there were factory occupations by workers in 1920. One newspaper reported: “the workers number former military pilots in their ranks who yesterday brought aircraft into action.” One state official reported at the time: “it seems the occupiers have machine guns. They claim to have armed a tank, built at the Fiat car plant”.

These Red Guards were not simply armed individuals. They were organised groups of workers under the democratic control of the workers’ organisations occupying the factories, via an elected military committee.

Another example is from 1956, when there was a revolution in Hungary, against Stalinism and for genuine workers’ democracy. The Soviet Union invaded Hungary to put down the revolution. This is an eye-witness account, from the chief of police in Budapest:

“We saw an immense crowd arrive on the street.

“We saw three large Soviet tanks coming from the opposite direction, straight towards the crowd.

“It was like a nightmare. The tanks arrived on the street. The soldiers saw the crowd and the crowd saw the tanks.

“The tanks stopped and stayed in place, motors still running. The crowd couldn’t stop; it kept coming, swarming around the tanks.

“A boy pushed his way through the crowd to the first tank and pushed something through the loophole. It wasn’t a grenade but a sheet of paper. It was followed by others.

“These sheets were notes in Russian, which started with a citation from Marx: ‘A people that oppresses another cannot itself be free.’

“We counted the minutes. Nothing happened.

“Then the top of the lead tank opened a little and the commander emerged slowly. Then he flung the turret open and sat on the top of his tank.

“Immediately, hands reached out to him. Young people leapt up on the tank. The crowd erupted in frantic cheering. The crowd sang the Hungarian national anthem. And, at the tops of their voices, they cried ‘Long live the Soviet Army!’

“Yet these were the same people who, fifteen minutes earlier, had determinedly chanted, ‘Russians go home.’

“My deputy and I exchanged glances. Although we were soldiers, the theory of our movement bypassed caste, nationality, personal interest and prejudice. A word from Marx, passed through a loophole, was stronger than a tank directed against a crowd.”

We should never let pacifists tell us we are unrealistic when we demand the arming of the working class, and the splitting of the army. It has been done, and can be done again. It is proven to be the only way to fight imperialist methods of war.

But we should also emphasise that the splitting of the army is not a one-act drama. It must be pursued as a conscious policy and not left purely to the spontaneity of the masses which can only have only a temporary effect, as it did in Venezuela, Italy and Hungary.

The struggle to shatter the repressive forces of the bourgeois class requires continuous organisation and strategy, in the political, industrial and military spheres, and that includes elected soldiers’ committees for example to solidify and widen the break between the ranks and the officers.

Such a policy was pursued by the Bolsheviks in 1917, who agitated in the trenches and the barracks. This way they drove a wedge between the army ranks and the officers, shattering the ability of the Russian ruling class either to fight the imperialist First World War, or to crush the revolution.

Nuclear weapons

Do nuclear weapons change the Marxist approach to peace and war? Why win over the soldiers and arm the workers, for example, when a nuclear third world war could be started by a handful of generals?

We must remember that war is waged for material gain. Nuclear war will not bring economic gain, only total destruction. It does not conquer new markets – it destroys them. There has not been a third world war, not because the imperialists have been convinced of pacifism, nor because the contradictions of capitalism have been overcome, but because it is not in their economic interests to wage it.

The biggest check on nuclear world war is the working-class struggle. Such a global and destructive war would provoke the mightiest backlash by the workers of the world that we have ever seen. The First World War provoked proletarian revolution in several countries against the imperialists and their wars. Today, the international working class is bigger and much more experienced than it was 100 years ago. The balance of class forces is more in our favour than at any other time in history.

That doesn’t mean that small, barbaric, proxy wars, such as Ukraine in 2014 or Syria since 2011 won’t take place. As long as capitalism exists, its contradictions will lead to war. The belligerents may not be imperialist powers, nor have directly competing economic interests. But imperialist powers stand behind such combatants and through them pursue their interests.

A direct clash between the major powers is currently ruled out, but this will only intensify the barbarity of proxy wars between nations, and of class wars within nations and against oppressed groups and oppressed nationalities such as the Kurds, for example.

A direct confrontation between imperialist powers is not ruled out forever. But before such a possibility could arise, titanic class struggles will take place. The working class will have the opportunity to take power many times before it can be smashed to the extent that it would not be a check on imperialist warmongering.

Is revolution necessarily violent?

Force can play a revolutionary role in history. It is through clash and contradiction that society develops, that is through war and revolution.

After the capture of the Winter Palace 26 October 1917 Image public domainThe capture of the Winter Palace in the October Revolution was almost bloodless, thanks to the overwhelming strength of the working class / Image: public domain

No ruling class in history has ever given up its position without a fight. Capitalist society is based, fundamentally, on force and coercion. Force will be required to remove it.

But does force necessarily mean violence? The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote, in his book The Art of War, that “those who render other armies helpless without fighting are the best of all”.

In other words, it is possible, and preferable, to win the fight with an overwhelming show of force right from the start, to render the bourgeoisie incapable of fighting at all. That requires using our superiority in the class balance of forces. It requires splitting the army ranks away from the officers and arming the working class.

But this policy requires an absolute purge of pacifism from the revolutionary movement.  We must be willing to fight to the end to defend our revolution. We hope that violence is not necessary, but if the capitalist class counter-attacks with violence, as happened in Sudan in 2019, we will not sacrifice our revolution to abstract pacifist ideals. Our motto is that of the 19th Century Chartist movement in Britain – ‘Peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must’.

A revolutionary morality

War and violence between classes and between nations is an inherent part of the capitalist system. Petitions, debates, the United Nations, treaties, etc. cannot stop the functioning of the capitalist system, and so they cannot stop war. Only the proletarian socialist revolution can do that.

Pacifist morality is empty and poisonous to the revolutionary movement. Ours is a higher morality based on the march of historical progress. The only just war is the class war. The only just means of waging it are those which really lead to the liberation of mankind.

This is not an abstract question, nor is it confined to Sudan or Palestine. The need for revolutionary force arose in the recent insurrectionary movement in Chile, and in the USA’s Black Lives Matter movement. It will arise in every country in the coming period and we must be ideologically prepared to confront it.