War and the Left

War and the Left

representational image (iStock photo)

Socialist theory has made one of its most compelling contributions by highlighting the nexus between the development of capitalism and the spread of wars. The leaders of the First International highlighted that, in contemporary society, wars are brought about not by the ambitions of monarchs but by the dominant social-economic model.

The lesson in civilization for the workers’ movement came from the belief that any war should be considered “a civil war”. In Capital, Karl Marx argued that violence was an economic force, “the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one”. But he did not think of war as a crucial shortcut for the revolutionary transformation of society, and a major aim of his political activity was to commit workers to the principle of international solidarity.

War was such an important question for Friedrich Engels that he devoted one of his last writings to it. In “Can Europe Disarm?”, he noted that in the previous twenty-five years every major power had tried to outdo its rivals militarily and in terms of war preparations. This had involved unprecedented levels of arms production and brought the Old Continent closer to “a war of destruction such as the world has never seen”.


As the major European powers kept up their imperialist expansion, the controversy on war acquired ever greater weight in the debates of the Second International. A resolution adopted at its founding congress had enshrined peace as “the indispensable precondition of any emancipation of the workers”. Yet, as the years passed, the Second International committed itself less and less to a policy of action in favour of peace and the majority of European socialist parties ended up supporting the First World War. This course had disastrous consequences.

With the idea that the “benefits of progress” should not be monopolized by the capitalists, the workers’ movement came to share the expansionist aims of the ruling classes and was swamped by nationalist ideology. The Second International proved completely impotent in the face of the war, failing in one of its main objectives: the preservation of peace. According to Lenin, instead, revolutionaries should seek to “turn imperialist war into civil war” ~ implied that those who really wanted a “lasting democratic peace” had to wage “civil war against their governments and the bourgeoisie”.

The First World War produced divisions not only in the Second International but also in the anarchist movement. Pëtr Kropotkin upheld the need “to resist an aggressor who represents the destruction of all our hopes of liberation”. Victory for the Triple Entente against Germany would be the lesser evil and do less to undermine the existing liberties. On the other side, Enrico Malatesta stated that the responsibility for the conflict could not fall on a single government and declared: “No distinction is possible between offensive and defensive wars”.

Attitudes to the war also aroused debate in the feminist movement. The need for women to replace conscripted men in jobs that had long been a male monopoly encouraged the spread of chauvinist ideology in a sizeable part of the new-born suffragette movement. Exposure of duplicitous governments – which, in evoking the enemy at the gates, used the war to roll back fundamental social reforms ~ was one of the most important achievements of Rosa Luxemburg and of the main women communist leaders of the time. They showed to successive generations how the struggle against militarism was essential to the struggle against patriarchy.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, the USSR was engaged in the Great Patriotic War which became later such a central element in Russian national unity. With the post-war division of the world into two blocs, Joseph Stalin taught that the main task of the international Communist movement was to safeguard the Soviet Union. The creation of a buffer zone of eight countries in Eastern Europe was a central pillar of this policy.

From 1961, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union began a new political course that came to be known as “peaceful coexistence”. However, this attempt at constructive cooperation was geared only to the USA, not the countries of “actually existing socialism”. In 1956, the Soviet Union had already brutally crushed the Hungarian Revolution.

Similar events took place in 1968 in Czechoslovakia. Faced with demands for democratisation during the “Prague Spring”, the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union decided unanimously to send in half a million soldiers and thousands of tanks. Leonid Brezhnev explained the action by referring to what he called the “limited sovereignty” of Warsaw Pact countries: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.”

According to this anti-democratic logic, the definition of what was and was not “socialism” naturally fell to the arbitrary decision of the Soviet leaders. With the invasion of Afghanistan, in 1979, the Red Army again became a major instrument of Moscow’s foreign policy, which continued to claim the right to intervene in what it described as its own “security zone”. These military interventions not only worked against a general arms reduction but served to discredit and globally weaken socialism.

The Soviet Union was increasingly seen as an imperial power acting in ways not unlike those of the United States. The end of the Cold War did not lessen the amount of interference in other countries’ affairs, nor did it increase the freedom of every people to choose the political regime under which it lives.

In 1854, Marx wrote on the Crimean Wars and, in opposition to liberal democrats who exalted the anti-Russian coalition, argued that: “It is a mistake to describe the war against Russia as a war between liberty and despotism. Apart from the fact that if such be the case, liberty would be for the nonce represented by a Bonaparte, the whole avowed object of the war is the maintenance [… ] of the Vienna treaties ~ those very treaties which annul the liberty and independence of nations”.

If we replace Bonaparte with the United States of America and the Vienna treaties with Nato, these observations seem as if written for today. The thinking of those who oppose both Russian and Ukrainian nationalism, as well as the expansion of Nato, does not show proof of political indecision or theoretical ambiguity. The position of those who propose a policy of non-alignment is the most effective way of ending the war as soon as possible and ensuring the smallest number of victims.

It is necessary to pursue ceaseless diplomatic activity based on two firm points: de-escalation and the neutrality of independent Ukraine. For the Left, war cannot be “the continuation of politics by other means”, to quote Clausewitz’s famous dictum. In reality, it merely certifies the failure of politics. If the Left wishes to return hegemonic and to show itself capable of using its history for the tasks of today, it needs to write indelibly on its banners the words “anti-militarism” and “No to war!”

(The writer is Professor of Sociology at York University, Toronto, Canada and is an expert of Socialist thought and history of the labour movement. His writings available at www.marcellomusto.org have been published worldwide in twenty-five languages)