In his 1976 biography of Lenin, Tony Cliff warmly endorsed the Bolsheviks call to convert the present imperialist war [World War I] into a civil war. Cliff asserted that, to aim at overthrowing ones own ruling class through civil war, one must welcome the defeat of ones own country, and noted that Lenin rejected with utter disgust the pacifist programme of Kautsky and his group.
But Karl Kautsky, long regarded as the champion of Marxian orthodoxy within the Second International, was not the only self-proclaimed revolutionary who capitulated to his own ruling class:
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Cliffs own organisation, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), during the recent imperialist assault on Yugoslavia. Unlike Lenin and the Bolsheviks, whose policies Cliff recommended so highly in his tome, the SWP did not choose the line of revolutionary defeatism, but rather struck a pacifist anti-war posture similar to Kautskys. At the outset of Natos bombing campaign, SWP theoretician Alex Callinicos sharply denounced the complete bankruptcy and cynicism of Nato policy:
While opposing Natos bullying, Callinicos deliberately refrained from calling for either the defeat of the imperialist aggressors, or the military victory of the Yugoslavs.
Lindsey German, editor of Socialist Review (SR), scoffed at Natos humanitarian pretences and explained that the real issue was the maintenance and extension of imperial power in the Balkans:
German chided the Blairites and their leftist camp followers for backing Nato:
Concluding that socialists should not take sides in either the Balkan ethnic conflicts or Natos attack on the Serbs, German argued:
Rejecting the imperialists role does not count for a great deal if it does not include advocating their defeat. Instead German can only suggest: It is the duty of every socialist to demonstrate and argue against this war, and to try to stop the bombing.
Chris Harman, another prominent SWP leader, took a similar tack:
To counter this aggressive globalism Harman timidly suggests, The responsibility of socialists in the bombing states is to do our utmost to bring the war to an end. Any pacifist could agree with that, as could Blair and Clinton who, right from the beginning, were anxious to bring the war to an end as quickly as possible. The critical issue was not how long the conflict would drag on, but which side should win. Yet the SWP steadfastly refused to take sides.
The Line of Revolutionary Defeatism is a Universal One
Revolutionaries in imperialist countries always want their rulers to lose, as Tony Cliff observed: The line of revolutionary defeatism is a universal one, applicable to all imperialist countries (op cit.). In inter-imperialist conflicts Leninists are defeatist on both sides, while always defending semi-colonial countries (e.g., Yugoslavia or Iraq) against imperialist aggression.
In response to Natos attack on Yugoslavia, the SWP and its co-thinkers in Germany, Greece and America issued a joint declaration entitled The main enemy is at home, which denounced the imperialist aggressors, but drew social-pacifist political conclusions:
But everything depended on how the war ended. A defeat for Nato that sparked a renewed wave of class struggle across Europe and beyond could have helped drive the imperialists out of the region. It would have certainly undermined Natos precious credibility and made it considerably more difficult for Blair et al. to launch their next campaign of humanitarian mass murder.
The joint declaration tries to conclude on a militant, internationalist note:
These two demands are fine as far as they go. But the SWPs repeated invocation of World War I and the war in Vietnam in its attempts to conjure up mass anti-war movements over Kosovo was fallacious. Liebknechts slogan must be understood in its context: in World War I, while defeatist toward both gangs of imperialist bandits, socialists in every country had a duty to treat their own rulers as the main enemy. When a semi-colony is under imperialist attack, the only enemy is the imperialist aggressor.
In Vietnam revolutionaries had a side, just as in the recent attack on Yugoslavia. Yet there was more at stake in Vietnam than national sovereignty. In the anti-Vietnam War movement in America, reformists (of both Stalinist and Trotskyist persuasions) emphasised bourgeois-pacifist calls to end the war, while more militant elements gradually came to understood that the key issue in Vietnam was the American attempt to strangle a social revolution. This issue became clearer as the conflict dragged on, and eventually tens of thousands of young Americans went from mere opposition to the war, to active support for the victory of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. The growth of overtly revolutionary sentiments on the campuses, the ghettos and within the draftee army itself, alarmed Americas rulers and was an important factor in their decision to pull out.
Stumbling toward disaster
In the June issue of Socialist Review the anti-imperialist rhetoric is noticeably toned down. This was presumably calculated to avoid offending Tony Benn or any of the other eminent persons the SWP leadership hoped to entice onto the platforms of the peace movement they were seeking to build. The lead editorial commented on the fears of the Nato leaders that their ground troops would get bogged down in a long war, sustaining heavy casualties, without even a hint that the SWP would welcome such a development. So given these three unpalatable options, Nato keeps stumbling towards disaster, the SR editors wrote, and recalled that, The national demonstration last month was over 15,000 drawn from around the country to protest at a war from which there will be no winners.
The notion that there would be no winner may have been comforting for any SWPers who felt uneasy about not opposing the imperialist aggressors, but it was obviously ridiculous. Every war produces winners and losers. The editorial concluded:
This reformist nonsense recalls Kautskys proposal during World War I that the imperialists should be pressured into disarming. Lenin savagely responded:
The Bolsheviks flatly opposed attempts to build an anti-war movement on a pacifist basis:
The SWP agrees with Lenin in both hindsight and in theory only in practice do they differ. But despite the anti-imperialist rhetoric, there is a logic to political adaptation. The June issue of Socialist Review reprinted a letter to the New Statesman (10 May 1999) signed by an assortment of prominent left liberals and pseudo-socialists (including sup-porters of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International and the SWPs own Alex Callinicos), asserting:
To liberals it is a matter of indifference that the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) is just as much an imperialist alliance as Nato. But the fact that Alex Callinicos, on behalf of the SWP leadership, was prepared to sink to the level of advising how best an imperialist-dictated peace could be imposed is evidence of total political bankruptcy. The July issue of SR, appearing after Milosevic had thrown in the towel, observed that, The victory of western imperialism over Yugoslavia, far from ushering in a period of peace, is likely to lead to further wars. True enough, but this only highlights the SWPs cowardice in failing to call for Natos defeat.
Lindsey German was cheeky enough to write: It is true that Nato was victorious. But probably no one involved in protesting against the war really expected a different outcome.
Perhaps German has a short memory, or maybe she just hopes her readers do. In the preceding issue, Germans editorial described Natos assault on Yugoslavia as a war from which there will be no winners. Impressionism never wears well.
Marxism and imperialist war
In Julys SR, Harman tried to give a semblance of political coherence to the SWP leaderships eclectic revisionism, by arguing that the assault on the Serbs was part of a new phase of imperialist wars:
Harman cites the anti-colonial rebellions in Kenya, Cyprus and Algeria in the 1950s and 60s as examples, and remarks that in the case of Algeria:
The admission that the system of collectivised property in Ho Chi Minhs North Vietnam was something better than what existed in the US neo-colony in the South constitutes a rejection, at least implicitly, of a central premise of the SWPs theory of state capitalism. It is significant in this connection that Harman omits the Korean War of the early 1950s from his list of examples, even though British troops were heavily involved, and the conflict was considerably more significant historically than either Kenya or Cyprus. Moreover, the stakes and the social forces in the Korean War were identical to those in Vietnam. Yet while the International Socialists eagerly joined hundreds of thousands of 1960s New Leftists in supporting the Vietnamese Stalinists, in the 1950s, Cliff & Co. capitulated to the prevailing anti-communist political atmosphere and refused to defend the North Korean Stalinists against an imperialist alliance headed by the US.
Harmans article proceeds to discuss a second form of imperialist war:
While stopping short of outright support to the US-led Desert Storm, the SWP leadership considered Husseins Iraq, like Milosevics Yugoslavia, too horrible (i.e., unpopular) to defend against the imperialist blitzkrieg. Harman also cites US assaults on Panama, Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan, but instead of advocating a policy of defending them against imperialist aggression, he proposes:
The Bolshevik traditions of 1914 are applicable to situations like 1914: i.e., conflicts between rival imperialists. They are not applicable when one or more imperialist powers attacks a dependent capitalist country, colony or semi-colony. Lenin made this point repeatedly. In 1915, for example, he wrote:
In 1916 he made the same point again:
In a letter to Alexandra Kollontai written a month earlier, Lenin even addressed the question of an imperialist attack on Serbia:
In 1999, when the Serbs stood alone against America, Germany, Britain, France and a half dozen other imperialists, the SWP refused to take a side. Milosevic was too horrible. This is not how revolutionaries react to imperialist aggression. In 1935, as Italy prepared to invade Ethiopia, Trotskys stance was clear:
The Negus was a reactionary autocrat who could not be equated with the leaders of national liberation struggles in the 1960s. Yet this did not prevent Trotsky from denouncing Fenner Brockway and other self-proclaimed revolutionaries in the Independent Labour Party for refusing to take sides in what they characterised as a struggle between two dictators:
One must be equally blind not to see that a defeat for Nato in Kosovo would have had a similar effect. Opposition to the US in Vietnam grew as American casualties mounted:
The Vietnam War exposed the barbarism of US imperialism and showed that it could be defeated.... The US ruling class fears not only a rerun of an unpopular war abroad, but the war at home to which it inevitably leads.
Americas Vietnam syndrome is a product of a military defeat. Military casualties in Lebanon in 1983 and again in Somalia in 1993 led directly to US troops being pulled out of both those countries. A defeat for Nato in 1999 in Kosovo would have increased the pressure to pull imperialist troops out of the Balkans.
To speak the truth no matter how bitter
Tony Cliff quite correctly observed:
In Natos recent war against Yugoslavia the divisions were equally clear, but Cliff followed Kautsky rather than Lenin and ended up with the social patriots. Like Kautsky, the SWP leadership can sometimes sound quite Marxist on abstract or historical questions, but in their practical activity attempts to get rich quick invariably take precedence over Marxist principle.
Genuine revolutionaries must be able to swim against the stream to put the long-term interests of the working class ahead of short-term popularity. The refusal of the SWP leadership to defend Yugoslavia against Nato demonstrates once more that it entirely lacks any revolutionary capacity.
Militants within the SWP who are seriously committed to the revolutionary traditions their leaders sometimes pay lip-service to, must break politically with the revisionism of Cliff & Co. and embrace the revolutionary programme of authentic Trotskyism.