Their morals and ours: Marxism vs. pacifism
Date: Tuesday 28th July
Time: 13:00 - 16:30 BST
One of the many slanders hurled at the Bolsheviks is that they were bloodthirsty intriguers who got their way through violent means. This is a criticism shared both by the hypocritical bourgeois, and elements on the left. These pacifists say that we need peace, love and understanding to counter the brutal repression of capitalism, not violent revolution. But will the ruling class ever really relinquish power without a fight? What is the real Marxist attitude to violence and pacifism? Our speaker, Ben Gliniecki, is a leading activist of the International Marxist Tendency.
- [Classics] Their Morals and Ours
- Buy at Wellred: Their Morals & Ours
- Bourgeois Pacifism and Socialist Pacifism
- Pacifism As The Servant of Imperialism
- Democracy, Pacifism and Imperialism
- On Conscription
- INVASION: Arm the Workers!
Ben: OK comrades, last year there was a revolution in Sudan. The revolutionary movement was very powerful; it threatened a fundamental transformation of society; and the total destruction of the old regime. The ruling military junta understood that the only way to preserve itself and crush this mass movement was to terrorise it.
They unleashed a militia called the Rapid Support Forces – a militia based on the most backward elements in society, and they rampaged through the protest areas, looting, beating, raping and killing. The regime terrorised the movement’s leaders into a deal which leaves the military effectively in control today.
The only way to stop the looting, beating, raping, and killing; the only way the aims of that revolution could have been carried through, would’ve been to arm the working class. Give them weapons to defend themselves, set up committees of self-defence, and kill the militiamen. The working class needed to be armed by appealing to the ranks of the army to join the revolution and disarm the militias.
Violence, here, was not an abstract question of theory or morals or philosophy. 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 pacifism. And it was congratulated for doing this by reformists and so-called Lefts all over the world.
One of these Sudanese leaders spoke at a conference of the Democratic Socialists of America last year. Jacobin magazine published an interview with her. 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 were beaten, raped and killed fighting military dictatorship in Sudan. Nor are they useful to those who continue to suffer under it today.
Events in Sudan last year prove, not in theory but in practice, that pacifism is poison in the revolutionary movement. The civil war waged by the Sudanese military leaders against their own people was to protect the interests of the Sudanese ruling class and the imperialists.
This is the same as the driving force behind modern war between nations. That is, the clash between the interests of different capitalist states which, which in the last analysis, are the interests of big banks and monopolies.
The modern capitalist state, which wages war, and it wages war now against its own people, now against a rival state, at all times is acting simply as a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie. And that bourgeoisie needs violence. The natural evolution of a system of production for exchange has created the concentration of wealth and monopolisation of the forces of production by a tiny handful of people.
And this produces antagonisms. Between classes, as the ruling class tries to maintain the exploitation of the workers. And between different cliques of bourgeois, represented by their nation states, driven by capitalist competition.
Now, the capitalist class has many weapons at its disposal to fight the workers of its own nation, and the capitalists of other nations, such as propaganda or diplomacy. But, in the final analysis history shows us that naked force is the only method by which capitalism can temporarily resolve its contradictions and maintain itself.
And this is important, write this bit down:
War, then, is not an external aberration to capitalism. It is not a mistake, it is not an accident. It is built into its foundations.
Throughout history, the aim of any ruling class has always been economic advantage. Force has only ever been a means to achieve that. War is waged, not for its own sake, but to conquer new markets, raw materials and spheres of influence.
The famous military theorist Clausewitz said: “war is the continuation of politics by other means”. And politics, as Lenin said, is concentrated economics. So the laws and logic of war, politics and economics are not separate, they 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. These violent methods of class rule to preserve bourgeois interests domestically, they find their twin in wars abroad.
So what conclusion do we draw from this? Only the overthrow of the capitalist system and class society can put an end to war. Using class struggle, we must break the repressive forces of the bourgeois class, whether they are used domestically or internationally. This is our policy, both in times of capitalist ‘peace’ and in times of capitalist war.
In times of bourgeois ‘peace’ we might use strikes to split the workers from 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 repressive power of the ruling class.
In times of imperialist war our policies have that same aim, adapted to the different circumstances. In the Second World War we were the only tendency to avoid either impotent pacifism or reactionary chauvinism. The British Communist Party by contrast adopted both those positions one after the other, both of which isolated them from the advanced working class in Britain. We adopted what was known as the Proletarian Military Policy.
The British workers instinctively understood the threat posed by fascism to the working class, and therefore wanted to fight Hitler. And we encouraged this, but without making any concessions, or giving any support to Churchill and the British ruling class.
We agitated for strikes among workers against the big capitalists profiting off the war effort. We called the workers to arms to join the struggle against the Nazi armies, but then also agitated among the soldiers for their democratic rights, against Churchill’s use of the British army against Greek partisans, for example, and at all times we exposed the imperialist character of the British ruling class.
We aimed to break the repressive power of the ruling class by breaking the commanding rule of the officers in the army. Our policy towards war, then, was not pacifist, but designed to smash capitalist militarism.
Right, so, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explain the connection between war and class struggle, they say:
“In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another will be put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end.”
What this means is that we are for class struggle, and the proletarian socialist revolution in our own countries, at all times. Unlike the pacifists, for whom class struggle is secondary in a situation of war, we aim to strengthen the class struggle in times of peace and in times of war. Naturally we use different methods, dictated by the circumstances, but always with the aim of weakening or breaking the repressive forces of the bourgeois class.
Now the war which should have been waged by the Sudanese revolution against the military junta could have broken those repressive forces. 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.
We are not for or against war ‘in general’. We base our policy on any given, concrete war. 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. And this is important, write this down also:
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.
All of these ideas are a closed book to pacifists, who see non-violence as a moral norm, obligatory upon all, for all time. But society is not governed by fixed or abstract morality, it is governed by the struggle of living, historical forces expressed through classes.
Now part of the role of Marxists is to expose the causes of war, and to analyse a given war’s historical significance, and to tell the truth to the working class about capitalism and imperialism.
Meanwhile, the ruling class deliberately obscures the objective basis for war. They appeal to the abstract idea of ‘pacifism’ as a calculated deception to mask the real class-based nature of their 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 and nothing to do with 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 arms sales and profit generally from the war. Wilson’s slogan of ‘peace’ hid imperialist interests. But within a year the interests of US imperialism had changed and that same pacifist led the US into the First World War. This is the cynicism with which the ruling class treats the idea of ‘pacifism’.
The Marxists see through this hypocrisy. But the petty bourgeoisie and the reformists do not. They believe the lies of the bourgeois 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 because they believed 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 has swallowed 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 why they believe that capitalists can be persuaded to grant economic concessions to the working class.
Fundamentally, they replace a materialist analysis of society with philosophical idealism. They do not understand how the capitalist system really works – that it cannot afford concessions or 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 even to afford some concessions for the working class, so everybody was happy. 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 believes austerity and war are purely ideological questions, untouched by the laws of capitalist development and crisis.
But the point is 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. But 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 that position of 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’ for example, pressure on the imperialists. 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 which extracted the Russian workers and peasants from the First World War. It was not pacifist pleading, but the German revolution of 1918 which brought that war to its conclusion. It was not moral pressure, but revolutionary councils of action and a dockworkers’ strike which forced the British to withdraw the army from invading Soviet Russia in 1920.
What flows from this understanding of pacifism? Pacifism, then, 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 the big ones veto anything which 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.
The UN is an elaborate display of pacifism which is completely hollow on the inside. Pacifists who celebrate the UN are, consciously or unconsciously, servants of the imperialist interests which 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.
Now Leon 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 -- 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 which cause war? Or is it the inevitable capitalistic tendency towards war which 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.
This is the finished programme of Marxism. But we must connect this programme 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 healthy reaction against imperialism and bourgeois hypocrisy. Our role then, is to point out the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie 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 for example, transitional demands such as those put forward by our tendency in Britain in the past, like state expenditure on public works instead of weapons, the nationalisation under workers’ control of the armaments industry, or like military bases to be brought under the democratic control of the working class.
Just because workers desire peace, 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 that I 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.
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. Last year 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. And so 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 that the working class has. It was bourgeois fear of mass domestic discontent which 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 & 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 turned against it. This is the power of the working class struggle to disrupt imperialist plans.
Marxists want to turn imperialist wars into civil wars, and we consider the wars to liberate oppressed nations and classes to be historically justified. We have no abstract, moral opposition to violence. But does this mean all methods of waging these wars are permissible? No.
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. And in fact it strengthens the repressive apparatus of the state which adopts harsher powers and methods for dealing with so-called “terrorists”. These methods actually only strengthen the forces of bourgeois violence.
Our approach to such methods of struggle is not a moralistic question but a tactical one. Only those methods of struggle which 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 had a far greater effect. There are huge protests taking place in Israel now. 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 mobilizing 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, 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. It has weakened the Palestinian struggle.
In general terms we are opposed to the pacifist slogan of disarmament on one side, and on the other hand we are opposed to individual terror or guerrillaism on the other. Against both of those we counterpose independence in the industrial and political policies of the working class, which requires arming the masses and splitting the army, winning over the army ranks to the working-class struggle.
The petty-bourgeois and the reformists, say that arming the masses and splitting the army 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 they 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 wrote this report: “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: in 1956 there was a revolution in Hungary, against Stalinism and for genuine workers’ democracy (not for a return to capitalism). The Soviet Union invaded Hungary to put down the revolution. And 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 tank 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 sung 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 you 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 impact, 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.
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, it will just bring total destruction. It does not conquer new markets – it destroys them. There has not been a third world war, now, yet, 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 such a war.
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 – they will still 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 nations such as the Kurds for example.
But a direct confrontation between imperialist powers is not ruled out forever. Unchecked by the power of the working class, and out of desperation, the USA for example could look seriously at a first strike policy against a rival imperialist nation.
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. Such a perspective cannot be excluded in the long term, if we fail to take power, but as I said, the balance of class forces is on our side.
The final question that I’d like to deal with: Will socialist revolution in the modern epoch necessarily be violent? Force can play a revolutionary role in history. It is through clash and contradiction that society develops, that is through war and revolution.
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. We should study France in 1968, the 1917 October revolution in Petrograd, and other examples of revolutionary movements whose force was so overwhelming that violent opposition simply melted away.
But this policy requires an absolute purge of pacifism from the revolutionary movement. We must be willing to fight to the end, with violence, if it is necessary. We hope that it’s not, but if it is, we will do so. Our motto is that of the 19th Century Chartist movement in Britain – “Peacefully if we can, forcefully if we must”.
So finally, to conclude: War and violence between classes and between nations is an inherent part of the capitalist system. Petitions, debates, the United Nations, treaties, etc. these 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. And this is important, write this down: 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 insurrectionary movement in Chile last year, and is present in the USA’s Black Lives Matter movement today. It will arise in every country in the coming period without exception, and we must be ideologically prepared to confront it.
Thank you very much for listening, comrades.
Rob: Ben said something really important when he said that we cannot equate the violence of the slave owners to keep the slaves in chains with the violence of the slaves to break those chains. The violence of the slave owners is reactionary, and the violence of the slaves is progressive.
Pacifism operates on the basis of absolute moral imperatives – it strives for the absolute “good” of peace and non-violence and abhors the absolute “evil” of violence regardless of circumstance.
I think most people would agree that employing violence to defend one’s life or the life of another person is not a bad or evil thing. Likewise, not taking action, not using violence to save a life may not be justifiable. I think it would be morally questionable for someone who could have saved a life to say that they did not do so all for the sake of preserving some abstract moral principle of non-violence.
If we look at pacifism in the context of protest movements and strikes for example, we can see that it can only have reactionary consequences because it ultimately serves the interests of the ruling class. The pacifists basically say, “you can protest or go on strike, but it must remain peaceful at all costs”. But what this really means is that, “you can protest or go on strike, but nothing more”.
Pacifism does not offer the working class a means of resisting or overcoming the violence of the capitalist class. Pacifism thus denies, on moral grounds, revolutionary self-defence or action on the part of the working class from the outset, which really means maintaining the status quo.
Workers on strike have a right to defend themselves, and if striking workers didn’t defend themselves, winning a strike would be very difficult. Likewise, protests and marches have the right to defend themselves from fascist thugs and the police.
So if a protest movement doesn’t defend itself, it is very easy for the ruling class to intimidate the movement into silence or to smash it and defeat it. This is what Trump is trying to do right now with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. He wants to terrorize the movement and terrify everyone into going home.
If we genuinely want to change society, this means that revolutionary action, force, will likely, at least at a certain point, need to be used. Good or bad, this is the nature of history and the nature class struggle.
Now we are not bloodthirsty and think that violent tactics must be employed everywhere and at all times. We would prefer if everything were peaceful, but in reality this is not always possible.
As Ben said, our approach to the question of violence in the class struggle is not a moralistic one but a tactical one. There are times when a non-violent approach is the way to go and there are times when more forceful or violent methods are necessary. It depends on the circumstances, the level of organization of the movement, the stage of the class struggle, etc.
One thing we do know is that no ruling class in history has ever given up its power and privileges without a fight – a serious fight. All of human history very clearly demonstrates this. Historically speaking, this is why revolutions are necessary. The power and privileges of the ruling class must be forcibly taken away from them, and likewise the new freedoms and rights of the revolutionary class, the new society, must be forcibly established and imposed.
Rights and freedoms have not been won by the oppressed and exploited by politely asking for change, but have been won through struggle, through determined, militant action. This was the case with the right to strike, right to free assembly, the right to vote, the right to an eight-hour day, etc.
Now if we take the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, we can see that these abstract, absolute moral principles of pacifism have reactionary consequences, the pacifists say that all violence is bad – they thus equate any violence on the part of the poor and the oppressed with the violence of the state, the police, the National Guard, and so on.
However, this moral equivalence only lends itself to the arguments of the right wing, Fox News anchors see a small fire at a courthouse in Portland and then use this to morally justify the brutally violent attacks by Homeland Security agents on protesters.
Tactically speaking, the riots and looting we saw in the early days of the uprising following the death of George Floyd did not particularly serve the interests of the movement at that time. But does this mean that we condemn this “violence” or equate it with the violence of the ruling class and the state? No, of course not. We stand firmly with the exploited and the oppressed.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard”. When the poor, the downtrodden, the exploited express their despair and hopelessness in the utter rage of a riot, it is perfectly understandable from the perspective of Marxism. When people express their rage at the brutal violence of 400 years of slavery, capitalist exploitation, Jim Crow laws, racism, police brutality, it is totally understandable. And how can these expressions of the rage and despair of the exploited, fighting for justice and equality, fighting for a new world, be compared with the violence of the state in an effort to stop this struggle for justice and equality, which can only be reactionary?
How is the burning down of a police station equal to the decades and decades of police violence, racism and brutality? And where is the real violence coming from anyway? Aside from the early riots in some places, the protests have been almost entirely peaceful across the country. If the police had just stayed at home, there would have been very little to no violence.
I’d like to finish with a quote by Mark Twain from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where he talks about the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution, but I think it has broad applicability on this question of pacifism and violence in the class struggle in general.
He says: “There were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror —that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”
Thank you very much, comrades.
Jules: The topic of self-defence is of crucial importance for the workers movement. As Ben explained, bourgeoisie never hesitated to use violence against workers mobilization. Adding to the violence of police – there is also the violence of the far-right, the fascists groups of radicalized lumpens and petty bourgeois used by the ruling class as a hammer against the working class.
In the 1920’s and 30’s, they were used to crush the revolutionary movement as it was going down and, in several countries, the bourgeoisie even gave power to these groups. At the time, they had become mass movements of 100 of thousands of members and fighters and put to power, they liquidated the organizations of the working class.
This question is taking a new importance today. Since the crisis of 2008, radicalization has expressed itself on the left and on the right – and fascist groups are on the rise. The main difference with the past is they can no longer hope to rise themselves to power. And that is to disagree with the screams of the ultra-left, who see fascists and fascism in every corner.
And this difference is mainly caused because they are lacking the social basis that was giving them strength during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Peasantry, middle classes disappeared in most countries, and moreover, strata that were inclined to fascism have been proletarianized: students, civil servants, etc. This can be seen at every big anti-fascist demonstration: each time the fascist are completely outnumbered by their opponents. But even if they can no longer be in power, put themselves in power, fascists are still a threat to the working class.
During the recent period, there had been multiple attacks of fascists against the general population or the workers’ movement: in Charlottesville, in Christchurch, El Paso, Frankfurt. In Austin (Texas), this Sunday, a protester was shot dead by a fascist who ran his car in a demonstration. This is a threat that needs to be addressed by the workers movement.
And for the reformist leadership, the solution is simple: they ask for the state, the judiciary, to protect them and to repress and outlaw fascist groups. And this is a mistake for so many reasons. Firstly, because it’s not working. The bourgeois state needs these groups as a strike force against the working class, as a suppletive force in fact, to supplement the force of the police.
Not only did the bourgeois state did nothing to prevent these attacks, which I’ll talk about, but its main leaders (from Trump to Macron), and speakers (on TV and in the papers) encourage these attacks, more or less openly.
A few weeks ago, after a fascist attack with cars against a demonstration, a mayor in the US, a city mayor, read a list of activists in public with names and addresses. In fact designated targets to fascist terrors. And the state and police protect them instead of repress them. And even when they are compelled to act against them, the way they do it doesn’t work. Legal dissolution is of no use with such things.
In France, the two main fascist organizations active today have both been “dissolved” numerous times. One time, one of them had been dissolved because one of its members tried to kill the president! But each time they just changed their name – and continue with their business as usual.
And the second and most important reason: this policy disarms workers – it pushes them to trust the bourgeois state, to believe that it is neutral and that it can be used in their interest but as Marx, Lenin and every other Marxist has proved, and as the world history if class society demonstrates, the state is not a neutral thing. It cannot serve the working class if it is a bourgeois state. This is one of the main issues with this policy.
A minority of activists reacted to these policies, looked for solution in an ultra-left caricature. King of anti-fascist groups specialised in anti-fascist fashion. But why have been reduced very often to small groups fighting the fascists on a “one on one” basis. This is also often (almost always) linked to a sectarian attitude toward mass organizations. And in practice, these activists are saying the exact same thing as the reformist leaders to the workers: “The physical fight against fascists is a bad thing. A bad thing for you. You should let the police or the anarchists take care of it.”
In reality, what is lacking is not numbers, it is organization. It can be seen by the very nature of the attacks of the fascists: isolated individuals attacking mass of demonstrators or people in the streets, not organized fascist groups. Always isolated individuals attacking.
What is needed is an organization of the self-defence of the movement by the movement itself. Linked to the mass movement and to the working class organization. This is the responsibility of the working class organization, to set up armed self-defence committees. This is the only solution to send the fascist murderers or aspiring murderers crawling back into their dens.
In a lot of case, the simple show of force will be sufficient to stop the attacks before they occur, but it is not sufficient to defend itself, we need also to go on the offensive.
And this organization of self-defence committees, this self-defence will not only eliminate fascism. If it eliminates, if it fights against it causes, that is scarcity and capitalism. This work in fact needs in fact, to be linked with a revolutionary struggle for socialism. Because only the liquidation of capitalism can make fascist violence disappear. Contrary to their crazy dreams, fascists are not the future, we are. Thank you.
Niklas: Thank you, comrades, thank you for the interesting discussion.
Trotsky in his debates with the centrists in the 1930s, entered into polemic with them on the question of war and pacifism. And the centrists of the SAP had just voted a very pompous anti-war resolution at one of their international conferences. And Trotsky took them up sharply. Like many pacifists at that time, these supposed Marxists raised the question of disarmament.
And like Ben described, as long as oppression and exploitation exist, weapons will remain a factor in the relations between states. Now in this debate, Trotsky wrote: “To advance disarmament as the ‘sole, real method of preventing war’ implies fooling the workers for the sake of achieving a common front with petty-bourgeois pacifists.”
The resolution that he criticized raised an appeal to “the opponents [!] of war the whole world over.” Like every anti-war movement that drags out the priests and the conservatives – the more the merrier. This happens in Britain a lot, where the SWP who are supposedly Trotskyists constantly drag out these reactionaries in the name of peace.
Trotsky replies to this: “The professional “opponents of war” are the Quakers, the religious Quakers – the Christians, the Tolstoyans, the Gandhists; and then too, there are the parlor pacifists, the democratic windbags, the acrobats, and the charlatans.” And I think that pretty much describes some of the anti-war rallies. A front with these people would inevitably force the Marxists to abandon their own programme. And would only serve to give political cover to these elements. And that's what the SWP does in Britain all the time.
We do not oppose war, in principle, war is a constant fact of life under capitalism. It cannot be protested away. The only way to end war is the overthrow of class society. And Trotsky again said this:
“It is no accident that in the policy of the Comintern, as well as that of the reformists, purely negative formulations predominate, like anti- imperialism, anti- fascism, anti- war struggle, without any class delimitations and without a revolutionary program of action. Such formulations are absolutely necessary for the policies of masquerade blocs … All these blocs and congresses and committees have as their task to screen the passivity, the cowardice and the incapacity to solve those tasks that compose the very essence of the class struggle of the proletariat.”
So Trotsky also raised the question of Zimmerwald. Where most of the participants were pacifist reformists most of whom soon found themselves back in the Second International. And he said: “Lenin participated in the conference not to reach conciliation with the centrists, not to present hollow “resolutions,” but to struggle for the principles of Bolshevism.”
Immediately after Zimmerwald, Lenin posed to the Zimmerwald left, the prospect of breaking with Zimmerwald, the right of the Zimmerwald if you will, and forming a new International.
Trotsky continues: “Ninety- nine percent of the reformists and centrists who are now harping on the pacifist phrases … will turn out on the side of their governments in the event of a new war.” Just note how the entirety of the Second International, almost the entirety, or their leaders anyway, were voting anti-war resolutions, even some very good resolutions, but then voted for the war under pressure from their ruling class.
And speaking of pacifist windbags, we organised a debate some years ago with a Methodist (another Christian group), pacifist, theoretician. After some opening pretty phrases about peace, love and understanding, he quickly came out with the usual anti-Bolshevik nonsense: complaining about Bolshevik violence, complaining about all the deaths in the middle of a civil war. But he barely blushed when he admitted, moments later that he had supported the war in Iraq. “For democracy”, of course.
So, like most pacifists he argued pacifism for the poor and oppressed, whilst supporting the violence of the imperialists and oppressors. And as the other comrades have said, our position is the opposite: we oppose the violence of the oppressors, but we support the struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors, with violence when necessary
And Trotsky continues: “Today, in times of peace, a doubly strict revolutionary selection is necessary. The criteria for this selection are clarity in theory and a practice corresponding to theory.” And that is also what we need today, we need political clarity. Thank you.
Francesco: Comrades, pacifism has always been a poison to the revolutionary movement. In 1938 the world was heading rapidly to a new imperialist war. The defeat of the socialist revolution in Spain had made it inevitable.
During the Munich crisis of 1938 Trotsky was categorical: those who wanted to come back to the so-called normality of the old world would have no alternative but to choose between, quote: “pious prayer” and “pacifist bleating”.
As petty-bourgeois moralists, the pacifists, on the left, deemed these perspectives as equal to accept war. And they accused the Trotskyists of being immoral.
But the organic crisis of capitalism did not allow any peaceful way out. And it was a very practical question. Only a social explosion during or just after the war, would have opened the way for the future of humanity once again. And Marxists had to prepare in the light of this perspective.
On the contrary, when the bourgeois governments or pacifists tried to appeal to appease German imperialism, they resembled childish games on the slopes of a volcano just ready to erupt. The war was imperialist and military credits had to be opposed, but empty slogans such as disarmament or neutrality served only the diplomacy of different sectors of the capitalist world.
Trotsky's criticism of pacifism was directed at organizations that refused to place the struggle for revolution within the universal militarization of society imposed by war. It targeted, in the first place, the pacifism of the centrist parties. Such as the British ILP, the French PSOP, the POUM etc. For instance, the deputy leader of the Independent Labour Party, James Maxton, crossed class lines and praised the Prime Minister Chamberlain as the saviour of peace for his appeasement towards Hitler.
For Trotsky, the revolutionaries had to find a way to reach the barracks, the military training camps and the trenches; and a military programme of transition was needed.
The cadres of the future revolutionary party had to understand that humanity had entered an era in which fundamental questions would be resolved with weapons in hands. The task of the revolutionaries was to go through the test of war with their class.
In a fundamental discussion with some American leaders of the Fourth International, Trotsky stated that the militarization of society was proceeding rapidly even in the USA and it was wrong to oppose it with "pacifists phraseology". Moreover, it was necessary to take into account an elementary truth: workers "carry a sentimental hatred of Hitler mixed with confused class feelings."
And since unions could not limit themselves to protecting workers in peacetime, Trotsky proposed that the workers' organizations should wage a campaign to demand that workers should be trained in military schools controlled by the unions and financed by the state. And elect officers from their own ranks. This was an effective way to continue the fight against the bourgeois state and its military even after the outbreak of the war.
Marxist propaganda had to separate itself from committees like ‘Keep America out of War’, where pacifism and reactionary isolationism intersected.
The pacifists accepted everything of the bourgeoisie system except militarism. No collaboration, on this basis, was possible. Quite to the contrary.
Trotsky’s policy was based on the articulation between propaganda and agitation. So, military training under union control, and full political freedom for the workers in uniform were part of a military program of transition
The Revolutionary Communist Party of Ted Grant applied this orientation during the war and was capable of waging an excellent communist work within the British army.
In September 1945, Philby, chief of British Military Intelligence and double agent to Stalin, requested a report on the work of Trotsky’s soldiers in Italy which involved many RCP members. On the contrary, bigger centrist parties didn’t play a role in the war and they soon collapsed.
To sum up, the position put forward by Trotsky proved how a revolutionary party has to adapt itself to a situation of open war, maintaining the focus on the perspective of overthrowing capitalism. A revolutionary party in other words, cannot be an organization that fights for its program only in peaceful and not dangerous times. Thanks, comrades.
Ben: Thank you Stefan and thanks to the comrades who spoke.
Rob and Jules spoke of worker’s self-defence. Here in London a few weeks ago, the organizers of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations cancelled the demonstrations on one weekend because they had received threats from far-right and fascist groups that they would attack the Black Lives Matter demonstration. In the name of maintaining peace, the demonstrations, the BLM demonstrations were called off. And the result was that the far-right was allowed to rampage through London, with no real opposition.
Now is this a success or a failure for the progressive forces in society? It’s a failure. And it’s the product of pacifism. The far-right threatened violence, and we deserve the battle – well we don’t, but they did. This can only embolden the forces of reaction and undermine the progressive forces.
And for those who are directly threatened by the far-right, this pacifism leaves them vulnerable and open to attack because the far-right are free to roam about unchallenged. In this sense, pacifism is a luxury for those who do not experience the sharp end of reaction. It’s the ideas that come from the petty bourgeoisie.
When Niklas was speaking about the vagueness of pacifist blocs, it reminded me of a quote from Marx explaining the position of the petty bourgeoisie in society. Marx said that the petty bourgeoisie is a transition class in which the interests of two classes – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat – are simultaneously blunted which soften the political positions and political clarity of the petty bourgeois. And so the classic petty bourgeois imagines themselves elevated above class antagonisms generally. And this is why their approach to pacifism is detached, vague, not sharp in any way.
We need a sharp policy based explicitly and consciously on the needs of the working class. And that requires countering the fascist threats of violence with our own violence if necessary. Rob also spoke of the riot being the language of the unheard, and this is very important because if we wait for a mass movement to appear with the perfect policy towards violence before we place ourselves on its side, then we will be waiting forever. Because the finished programme of Marxism is the product of many historical examples of class struggle over very long times.
Our job is to connect that program with the unfinished mood of the masses in struggle. Just because the Black Lives Matter movement or a guerrilla war in a dominated country, just because the masses do not adopt our tactic immediately does not mean we condemn the movement or refuse to engage with it. If we have a historically progressive movement then we must find a way to connect with it. Taking the mood of the masses and the history and the peculiarities of that particular movement fully into account, and skilfully connecting our ideas, patiently explaining our ideas as Francesco described in relation to Trotsky’s tactics.
Jules spoke about dissolving fascist groups legally and why that was a bad tactic or bad policy, and this is right because such a policy fails to see fascism as a product of the decaying capitalist system. Just as you cannot wish away war under capitalism you can’t simply ban fascism. Fascism and fascist tendencies arise as the capitalist system is unable to support bourgeois democracy. Although it can only acquire a mass basis after major defeats of the working class.
Democracy – bourgeois democracy, and pacifism are of the same political lineage, they are a part of the same political family. Both try to soften class relations without actually touching the economic foundations of those classes. The logic of capitalism causes class contradictions to sharpen at certain places, that’s capitalist crisis. And under those circumstances the safety valves of bourgeois democracy for example begin to explode. They can’t contain the rising contradiction within capitalism. They can’t soften – they can’t gloss over – they can’t soften that relation anymore. And this is the beginning of the road towards fascist tendencies, although as I said it requires the defeat of the working class before it can acquire much base.
And likewise, you see the same process of safety valves exploding, the safety valve of pacifism under these circumstances. The antagonism between different national cliques of bourgeois sharpens and so you get a diplomatic crisis and war. And so the questions of fascism and pacifism and violence, these are linked, they’re all part of the same process.
Niklas spoke about the need for political clarity in these ideas. The leaders of the Second International did not have clear ideas. Because they based themselves on compromise, they based themselves on a softening of class and international relations. That was the basis for their growth, their position. And so their ability to understand contraction, in fact the real basis in society when they arose in 1914, was severely limited. And the result of their lack of understanding was their betrayal and support for the First World War.
But we don’t base ourselves on the compromise, on the softening of class and international relations, we base ourselves on the clash of classes – on the class struggle because this is the motor force of history. If we deviate even slightly from this position, then as the contradictions of capitalism and class and international contradictions sharpen, we won’t be able to understand what is going on and we will make serious political mistakes.
The main thing we need to understand is that peace between classes or between nations is not possible as long as we have class society. In fact the only peace that is possible under capitalism is the peace that we have now in Libya which is not really peace at all. The former general secretary of NATO, described NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya as a success. It reminds me of what the Roman Senator Tacitus wrote: “they make a desert and call it peace.” Under capitalism the only options are the barbarism of war, or the barbarism of peace.
Our only way forward is to overthrow that system. So I’ll finish with something that Marx wrote about the Paris Commune. He said that “the war of the enslaved against the enslavers is the only justifiable war in history.” And comrades, this is our war. The only justifiable one in history. And we must fight it with iron determination and with pride. Thanks very much.