From the March 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard
Q. I can understand socialists being opposed to war — everybody hates war. But you must admit that there are times when it is necessary.
A. No, I don’t accept that at all. Every war has been justified with that sort of argument.
Q. So socialists would just let the Russians walk into this country without doing anything to stop them?
A. It’s the Russians now, is it? Look, socialists realise — better than most people — that they don’t have any say in the matter. Neither have you. We are not the ones who decide whether this nation will go to war — or who the enemy will be.
Q. Oh, well, of course. That’s true in every country. The government decides.
A. That’s right. The majority of the Russian people, or Americans or Germans or Japanese are conscripted — forced — to do the fighting, whether they want to or not, like us.
Q. Yes, but the government represents the interests of the whole country, doesn’t it?
Q. But it is elected by a majority of the population.
A. Oh, yes, I agree. But I don’t think that the majority of the people realise what their real interests are. They gain nothing out of a war and many of them lose a very great deal.
Q. It’s bound to involve sacrifices when we’re defending our country.
A. “Our country”? Most of us don’t own a scrap of it. Virtually all the land and all the buildings and other wealth on it belong to a small number of extremely wealthy people. It’s their country — not ours.
Q. You know what I mean — we’re all British. We’ve got a common cause when we are threatened by a foreign power.
A. I know that’s how a lot of people feel about it, but it just doesn’t square with the facts. For a start, many of the owners of factories and so on in this country aren’t British at all. They’re American or Japanese or German or Arabs. So I don’t know what you feel about fighting to protect their wealth.
Q. Well, all right. But they give us British jobs, don’t they?
A. Look, I think you’d better get this “jobs” business sussed out. Firms don’t give us jobs out of the kindness of their hearts. Only if they can make a profit out of us. When they can’t, they sack us. And the lower they can keep our wages, the more profit they make.
Q. I know that. That’s what they’re in business for — to make a profit.
A. And it’s out of their profits that they pay the enormous amounts of money needed to run the government and all the other paraphernalia of the state — including the fighting services.
A. That’s why governments — whatever political party — always operate in the interests of business — capital. And when governments go to war, it’s for their interests — not ours.
Q. What do you mean, “their interests”? Surely everybody has got an interest in freedom and democracy?
A. Wars are not about freedom and democracy. That’s just a slogan. Wars are the more violent episodes in the ongoing competition for profit and power in the world. When negotiations finally break down, the ultimate form of competition is war. The only war — if you want to call it that — for freedom and democracy that British people have been involved in was against our own ruling class. And pretty vicious they were when working men and women were campaigning and organising to form trade unions or get the vote.
Q. You say wars are not about freedom, but what about the war against Hitler? Britain couldn’t let the Germans go on slaughtering millions of Jews.
A. But Britain did! The Nazis had been exterminating Jews — and Gypsies and Communists — for years before Britain declared war in 1939. And all that time British statesmen and newspapers had been saying what a great man “Mr Hitler” was. It was Germany’s territorial expansion and growing industrial and military strength which finally made them see Germany as a dangerous competitor.
Q. Just a minute. You’re not trying to say that all the stories about German atrocities were just British propaganda?
A. No, of course not. Those things happened. But atrocities are going on all the time in different countries, and other nations do little or nothing about them — unless they want to use them as propaganda. For instance, Britain did virtually nothing about the thousands of Argentinians who were tortured and murdered under the military regime. But when that government tried to take possession of the Falkland Islands — then the build-up of propaganda was almost as rapid as the deployment of the armed forces.
Q. You make it sound a very callous, ruthless business.
A. Do 1? I’m glad. Because that’s exactly what it is. Governments talk about human rights and freedom when it suits them, but if you look at their actions it’s just eyewash. They are completely devoted to protecting and expanding possessions and profits and power — utterly regardless of human beings. How can any genuine human interests be served by the huge stocks of chemical and biological and nuclear weapons that the major nations are building up? They are all designed to kill human beings in millions.
Q. Well, all right. Suppose we agree that the big nations are only quarrelling about carving up the world between them — what about the struggles of small nations to break free from the domination of the big nations — Afghanistan or Mozambique or Vietnam? I thought socialists supported wars for independence.
A. No. If you look at nations that have gained their independence from the old colonial powers it is pretty obvious that the ordinary people, the peasants and the working class, are no better off under their home-grown ruling class than they were under the British or the Portuguese or whatever.
Q. But a lot of these countries have Marxist governments.
A. So they say. What does it mean? That they think they can get a better deal by linking themselves with Russia than with the USA or European nations? Anyway, you wouldn’t say that the average Russian worker was particularly free or well off, would you? Labels like Marxist don’t mean very much. They are part of the steady diet of propaganda. The real test is the living and working conditions of the majority of the population.
Q. Well, I agree with all that. But I thought that Karl Marx was in favour of wars of independence.
A Yes, you are quite right. That was over a hundred years ago, though.
Q. Are you saying that he was right then, but he’d be wrong now?
A. No, Marx and Engels were both wrong about it. It’s easy to see that, with hindsight. Experience has proved it. But it was an understandable mistake.
Q. Well, I don’t understand it. Why do you say they were mistaken?
A. Probably wishful thinking. They expected a much faster development of working-class understanding and solidarity than in fact happened. Much of Europe was still under the domination of the old feudal empires in the first half of the nineteenth century. They thought that the defeat of the Austrian and Russian Regimes and the emergence of capitalist nation states like Germany would quickly lead to a working class movement to overthrow the capitalist regimes. It didn’t happen. The workers got caught up in the surge of nationalist feeling fostered by their new masters. They still do, don’t they?
Q. I suppose so. So socialists reckon that our own employers are bigger enemies than foreign soldiers?
A. That’s one way of putting it — if you apply it to every country. You and I have got no quarrel with Russian workers or German workers or any other workers. They’re in the same position as we are — being milked all their lives by their bosses. It doesn’t do us a scrap of good to nuke them.
Q. No, that’s true. Whoever wins a war, the working class always loses — on both sides.