Marxist Bulletin Home Page

Cliffites on Kosovo:

Born-again Kautskyites

Revolutionaries and imperialist war

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 one’s own ruling class through civil war, one must welcome the defeat of one’s “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:

‘The world war .... put to the test all the various traditions, organizations and leaderships. It laid bare the rottenness of many who disguised their contradictions during peace time, but could do so no longer. Throughout this very hard time, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were steeled and ready to lead a revolution.’
(Tony Cliff, Lenin, v. 2)

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of Cliff’s 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 Kautsky’s. At the outset of Nato’s bombing campaign, SWP theoretician Alex Callinicos sharply denounced ‘the complete bankruptcy and cynicism of Nato policy’:

‘In this supposedly “postcolonial” epoch, imperialism is alive and well. The great military and economic powers are still bullying everyone else to obey their demands. The only sane response is to rally all the forces we can against this barbarous war – and, beyond that, against the system that makes such horrors.'
(Socialist Review, May 1999)

While opposing Nato’s 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 Nato’s ‘humanitarian’ pretences and explained that the real issue was ‘the maintenance and extension of imperial power’ in the Balkans:

‘[Nato’s] aim is to extend its influence over the region, looking on the one hand to ensure that oil extraction in the Caspian Sea will benefit western capitalism, and on the other hand to extending the rule of the EU – and by proxy the US – further east. This war in Serbia is not about the wellbeing of the refugees and of the ordinary Albanians from Kosovo. It is about attempting to use the pretext of war against Slobodan Milosevic to dominate the whole of the Balkans.’

German chided the Blairites and their leftist camp followers for backing Nato:

‘So the left is taking sides with an organisation which has never had a humanitarian aim and which is bent on an all out war. What will that war mean? It has already made things worse. The Nato bombing has led to an escalation of the humanitarian disaster.’

Concluding that socialists should not ‘take sides’ in either the Balkan ethnic conflicts or Nato’s attack on the Serbs, German argued:

‘For the further logic of taking sides is to cause much greater instability in the region, which in turn will be met by greater use of force by the west....’

‘Yet, despite the horrors of what is happening in Kosovo and the wider Balkans, it is precisely through approaching the question with a class analysis that we can begin to make any sense of it and begin to find a solution. That means rejecting taking either the side of the Serb regime or of the KLA, and rejecting the role of US imperialism in the region.’

‘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:

‘The imperialist purpose behind Nato’s continuing war is clear.... the war has nothing to do with humanitarianism, but with the insistence by US imperialism that it can punish any state that defies it. The war is completely at one with US policy elsewhere in the world.’

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 Nato’s 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:

‘One of the many reasons why we demand an end to the war is that a return to peace can help create the conditions in which working people from the different fragments of former Yugoslavia begin to unite against their real enemies – the local ruling classes ... and the imperialist states whose intervention has, yet again, unleashed catastrophe upon the Balkans.’ (reprinted in
Socialist Review, May 1999)

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 Nato’s 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:

‘The urgent task of revolutionary socialists today is to take the initiative in building mass anti-war movements throughout the Nato countries. For us, as it was for Karl Liebknecht during the First World War, “the main enemy is at home”. The example of Vietnam shows the impact that domestic protest can have on imperialist warmongering. Mass opposition at home can force the Nato leaders to end the slaughter. Stop the bombing! Nato out of the Balkans!’

These two demands are fine as far as they go. But the SWP’s 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. Liebknecht’s 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 America’s 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:

‘There is therefore a real duty for socialists to build the movement and to deepen and widen it, so that it involves more and more forces which will eventually make this government and the other members of Nato sit up and listen.’

This reformist nonsense recalls Kautsky’s proposal during World War I that the imperialists should be pressured into disarming. Lenin savagely responded:

‘The Kautskyite advocacy of “disarmament”, which is addressed to the present governments of the imperialist Great Powers, is the most vulgar opportunism, it is bourgeois pacifism, which actually – in spite of the “good intentions” of the sentimental Kautskyites – serves to distract the workers from the revolutionary struggle.’
(The Disarmament Slogan, October 1916)

The Bolsheviks flatly opposed attempts to build an anti-war movement on a pacifist basis:

‘If the present war arouses among the reactionary Christian socialists, among the whimpering petty bourgeoisie, only horror and fright, only aversion to all use of arms, to bloodshed, death, etc., then we must say: Capitalist society is and has always been horror without end.... the dream of disarmament, is, objectively, nothing but an expression of despair at a time when, as everyone can see, the bourgeoisie itself is paving the way for the only legitimate and revolutionary war – civil war against the imperialist bourgeoisie.’

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 SWP’s own Alex Callinicos), asserting:

‘Nato is not the only or above all the best fulcrum for an agreement [over Kosovo]. One could find the elements of a multinational police force (embracing notably Serbs and Albanians) in the ranks of the OSCE to enforce a transitional agreement.’

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 SWP’s cowardice in failing to call for Nato’s 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, German’s editorial described Nato’s assault on Yugoslavia as ‘a war from which there will be no winners’. Impressionism never wears well.

Marxism and imperialist war

In July’s SR, Harman tried to give a semblance of political coherence to the SWP leadership’s eclectic revisionism, by arguing that the assault on the Serbs was part of a ‘new phase of imperialist wars’:

‘Imperialist wars in the 20th century have taken two forms. One is the very crude oppression of people in the colonial and ex-colonial countries by the native imperial powers....’

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 best sections of the French left did not merely support the right of Algeria to self determination ... but identified with the FLN [Algerian insurgents]. Similarly, those involved in the campaign against the Vietnam War recognised that they represented something better than what the US offered in terms of the peasants and workers of Vietnam.’

The admission that the system of collectivised property in Ho Chi Minh’s 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 SWP’s 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.

Harman’s article proceeds to discuss a second ‘form’ of imperialist war:

‘There are other sorts of imperialist wars – the inter-imperialist wars, or ones in which your ruling class’s enemy is just as bad as your ruling class.... The Karl Liebknecht slogan, “The main enemy is at home”, or, in a different context, Lenin’s slogan, “Any revolutionary has to wish for the defeat of their own ruling class in such a war”, was psychologically important. It wasn’t a question of saying we support the other side in this war – it was a question of saying you can’t fight against the war by being evenhanded....

‘Most of the direct struggles against colonial oppression won some sort of victory or half victory by the 1980s.... What we entered was a new phase of imperialist wars which people have designated as wars between the greater imperialisms and the sub-imperialisms. Because of this, a section of the left has been completely disoriented, because it looks at the trainee bullies and their horrible counter-revolutionary regimes. In 1990–91 in the war between the US and Iraq, all sorts of people traditionally on the left said we have to support the US because Saddam Hussein is so horrible.’

While stopping short of outright support to the US-led ‘Desert Storm’, the SWP leadership considered Hussein’s Iraq, like Milosevic’s 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 left has to reach back to the traditions of 1914, rather than just to the traditions of the struggle against the Vietnam War. We have to remember who our main enemy is.... We don’t support the Serbian government.... At the same time we also have to understand that the power which wanted to crush the Serbian government is a much greater evil.’

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:

‘If tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, or India on Britain, or Persia or China on Russia, and so on, these would be “just”, and “defensive” wars irrespective of who would be the first to attack; any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states victory over the oppressor, slave-holding and predatory ‘Great’ Powers.’
(Socialism and War, July 1915)

In 1916 he made the same point again:

‘It would be sheer folly to repudiate “defence of the fatherland” on the part of oppressed nations in their wars against the imperialist Great Powers....’
(The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution, September 1916)

In a letter to Alexandra Kollontai written a month earlier, Lenin even addressed the question of an imperialist attack on Serbia:

‘I think it mistaken in theory and harmful in practice not to distinguish types of wars. We cannot be against wars of national liberation. You quote the example of Serbia. But if the Serbs were alone against Austria [instead of being tied to the Allied imperialists], would we not be for the Serbs?’
(Letter to Alexandra Kollantai, August 1916)

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, Trotsky’s stance was clear:

‘Of course, we are for the defeat of Italy and the victory of Ethiopia.... When war is involved, for us it is not a question of who is “better”, the Negus [Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s emperor] or Mussolini; rather, it is a question of the relationship of classes and the fight of an underdeveloped nation for independence against imperialism.’
(The Italo-Ethiopian Conflict, 17 July 1935)

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:

‘The victory of the Negus ... would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this.’
(On Dictators and the Heights of Oslo, 22 April 1936)

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:

‘25 years after the humiliating defeat of US imperialism in the Vietnam War, the Vietnam syndrome is not just a nightmarish memory of a bloody and unjust war but a continued unwillingness of the US population to accept the possibility of its repeat. The mere mention of “body bags” brings forth images and memories of the 58,000 US troops whose mission was to slaughter 1.3 million Vietnamese civilians.

‘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.’
(Sharon Smith, ‘Ghost of Vietnam’, Socialist Review, June 1999)

America’s ‘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:

‘The superiority of Lenin’s position [on World War I] was that by its extremism, by its “bending the stick” – by speaking about the defeat of one’s own country as being the lesser evil it was better calculated to create a clear division between revolutionaries and social patriots.’
(Lenin, v. 2)

In Nato’s 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.