Saturday, March 14, 2020

Are Socialists for War? (1987)

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?

A. No.

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.

Q. So?

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.
Ron Cook

Running Commentary: Property-Owning Democracy? (1987)

The Running Commentary Column from the March 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Property-Owning Democracy?

Remember the Tories' 1983 election promise of turning Britain into a "property-owning democracy"? The prospect of "owning” their own house was undoubtedly an attractive proposition to many workers fed up with the insecurity of renting their homes from unscrupulous landlords or penny-pinching councils. However for many the dream has turned into a nightmare. As fewer council houses are built and fewer properties are available to rent, many people have been forced to "choose" a mortgage, which the building societies have been only too pleased to give them.

But having encouraged people to become home owners, the government has now decided to punish those home-owners who have the misfortune to become unemployed. New rules have just been introduced which will mean that anyone who becomes unemployed will have only half their mortgage interest paid while they are in receipt of Supplementary Benefit and only for the first four months of unemployment. Under the old rules all the interest (but not the capital) was paid. This is bound to increase the rate of repossessions. Already one in ten homeless families are homeless because their home has been repossessed due to mortgage default.

Families faced with the prospect of unemployment and inability to pay their mortgage may decide to sell up to avoid arrears and repossession. If they do, however, the local authority would have no obligation to rehouse them since they would be deemed to be "intentionally homeless”.

For workers in this situation the security promised by the slogan "property-owning democracy" has turned out to be as illusory as it is for those who depend on paying rent in order to keep a roof over their heads.

It Pays to Advertise

It is even more profitable if you can get someone who has nothing to gain to pay you for the privilege of so doing!!

Strange as it may seem, the same person who objects strongly to paying a few pence for a carrier bag printed with the name of a supermarket, will pay pounds to advertise something else.

Guinness started the fashion years ago. In return for a cheque made out to them for the correct amount (something like 20 guineas if memory serves) you would receive a sweater with 'GUINNESS' — not even the toucan —  emblazoned across the front. Today for £18.95 you may buy a plain wool sweater by post; this price is already considerably higher than for a similar garment bought across the counter. However, for only an extra £ 1, you can have' The Times' discreetly embroidered on the left-hand side. Of course, if you don't have the odd £20 to spare, you can go downmarket and buy a Coca Cola — or if you prefer, a Pepsi — T-shirt. Slightly upmarket again, you could, in gold on black, advertise Biba. If you really want to dredge the bottom, feature the Sun with the screaming front page headline 'SID VICIOUS DEAD. Punk Star Killed By Overdose'.

One T-shirt we have not yet seen is the one advertising the fact that we are all being killed by an overdose — of capitalism!

Gorbachev the democrat?

"We need democracy like we need air to breathe", said Gorbachev in a speech to the ruling Central Committee. What he means by "democracy" is that there will be more than one candidate standing for office in elections and a bit more public debate with officials prepared to admit from time to time that things occasionally go wrong, that there are shortages and production quotas aren't always fulfilled.

Well it's better than nothing. But no-one should be conned into believing that the new, reforming Russian leadership is really concerned about giving ordinary Russian workers a voice in decision-making. What Gorbachev is undoubtedly concerned about is the failure of the Russian economy. Giving people a little in relatively unimportant areas is a time-honoured way of getting them to give back a lot more.

If Russian workers are made to feel that they do have a voice, that they are listened to, then it is quite possible they will be conned into working harder and producing more wealth for the Russian ruling class. A little bit of political liberalisation will not affect the fundamental division of Russian society into those with wealth and power and those without, unless Russian workers recognise that fundamental division and then exploit the small window of opportunity that Gorbachev has opened for their own political ends.

Bullets on the beat

Officially Britain has an unarmed police force. Unofficially things are rather different. A curious incident involving a car chase down the M1 which ended when the car being pursued ran out of petrol and shots were fired, led to revelations that for the past eight years traffic police patrolling the Nottinghamshire section of the M1 motorway, the A1 and Nottingham city centre have been carrying guns.

Charles McLachlan, Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire, said at a press conference:
  The vehicles are double-manned and weapons are carried in a locked container in the vehicle. They are two pistols, a pump-action shotgun and body armour. They are not allowed to take these weapons from the container which is permanently locked, without approval from a senior police officer.
No doubt this was meant to reassure people. But these words sound rather hollow given the trigger-happy mentality of certain armed police as shown by a series of tragic incidents over the last six years in which people have been "accidentally” shot by armed police.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the militarisation of the police is that the decision to arm police officers is not taken in public after debate and discussion but instead is made behind closed doors by the police themselves. As such decisions are deemed to be "operational" even the elected police authorities, to whom the police are nominally responsible, do not have to be consulted or even informed.

To All Readers (1987)

Party News from the March 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

You may be aware that Islington branch of the Socialist Party are putting forward a candidate for the forthcoming general election. Obviously an immense amount of background work is necessary if we are to seize this chance of putting our case across.

This is an ideal opportunity for people who are unable to attend branch meetings regularly to get involved. Volunteers are urgently needed to help in any way they can — envelope addressing, leaflet distribution, door-to-door canvassing and so on,

Even if you can only spare an hour or two a month, or are unable to get out and about in the constituency, please get in touch with Cliff Begley at head office to offer your services. Your support and help will seldom be of greater value than during this pre-election period.

Swords into swords (1987)

From the March 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last December the Labour Party unveiled its new military policy in the form of a glossy pamphlet bearing its new symbol — what seems to be a rather pinkish rose — and the appropriately patriotic title The Power to Defend our Country.

For those harbouring any last illusions about the Labour Party's anti-militarism, it's a revealing document in which the Tories are accused of being "disarmers by stealth" who have "crucially weakened" the "core of our armed strength". The Royal Navy, the Labour Party complains, "now has no ship dedicated to carrying large numbers of Royal Marines and their helicopters" while the Army "is set to lose a terminally guided anti-tank rocket, a scatterable mine rocket, a battlefield electronic warfare system as well as improvements to existing tanks and, possibly a new tank".

All this, we are told, because of Thatcher's fixation on nuclear weapons and decisions to buy the "appallingly expensive" Trident intercontinental missiles from America to replace the outdated Polaris missiles currently carried by Britain's four nuclear-armed submarines. Labour, the document says, intends to "cancel Trident, de-commission Polaris and remove all American nuclear weapons in this country". The money saved on Trident will be used to enhance NATO's "conventional capacity" of destruction:
  Britain will contribute towards that enhancement by committing the sums saved on Trident towards additional conventional strength.
The message is clear enough: Labour intends to maintain, indeed increase, Britain's "armed strength" by building up its arsenal of so-called conventional weapons. Or. more brutally, Britain's military power of destruction will be maintained but will be composed of conventional rather than nuclear weapons and the money wasted on Trident will be wasted instead on ordinary warships and warplanes, on bombs, rockets, missiles, tanks and battlefield electronic warfare systems.

This contrasts of course with what CND, and many Labour Party members and supporters, want: to spend the money saved on Trident on schools, hospitals and peacetime industries. The Labour Party's current military policy is, however, a literal if somewhat cynical interpretation of what CND demands: mere nuclear disarmament.

When CND was formed in 1958 they told us that nuclear weapons were so dangerous that we should drop everything else and join their single-issue campaign to get rid of them. The Socialist Party replied that, although we too were appalled by nuclear weapons, it was a waste of time to drop campaigning for socialism so as to campaign just for nuclear disarmament. We pointed out that arms, including nuclear weapons, only existed because capitalism was a war-prone society and that the only solution to the threat of nuclear destruction was to replace world capitalism with a socialist world of common ownership and democratic control. We added that, even in the unlikely event of nuclear weapons being abolished on a world scale, conventional weapons would still remain and that these too were capable of wreaking mass destruction and of killing millions and millions of people as the first and second world wars had shown; that, in fact, to accept capitalism while opposing nuclear weapons (as CND was in effect advocating) was to favour conventional weapons since the very nature of capitalism meant armed states squabbling over markets, trade routes and other economic matters and therefore the need for some kind of armaments as long as capitalism lasted.

As we put it in an early article on CND. "to campaign for nuclear disarmament implies acceptance of so-called conventional armaments" (Socialist Standard, August 1960). Some CND supporters replied that this was unfair, but the revived CND of the 1980s took up precisely this position, as the Labour Party has now done with a vengeance, not only accepting conventional weapons but even praising them as more effective than nuclear ones.

It should not be thought, however, that the Labour Party is against all nuclear weapons. Its new policy document commits it only to abandoning Britain's submarine-carried intercontinental nuclear missiles. It does not propose the abandonment of nuclear weapons by the NATO military alliance, which the post-war Labour government took Britain into and full support for which is reaffirmed in the document. Nor does it say what it intends to do about Britain's tactical, or battlefield, nuclear weapons such as what might be called the conventional H-bombs carried by RAF Strike Command and the nuclear depth charges carried on some Royal Navy ships (some of which were being transported by the convoy involved in the road accident in Wiltshire in January).

The Labour Party merely commits itself to trying to end "NATO's over emphasis on nuclear weapons" and to bring about "less reliance on nuclear weapons in the NATO alliance". In other words, the Labour Party accepts that NATO — in effect, the United States — should retain nuclear weapons:
  The Americans also understand that we are not asking them to dismantle their strategic nuclear weapons.
So American, but not British, submarines armed with Polaris and Trident missiles can continue their patrolling with the blessing of the Labour Party.

As to the American cruise missiles, it is true that Labour now says it will "remove" them from Britain but this is easier said than done since the decision to install them was a NATO decision and the other NATO members, especially those that have already accepted such missiles (Norway. Germany. Holland. Belgium and Italy), are likely to bring enormous pressure to keep them in Britain too. Already Labour's shadow Foreign Secretary. Denis Healey, has started to hedge on this issue, saying that it is “not inconceivable" that some American nuclear missiles could remain in Britain under a future Labour government.

In any event, where would these cruise missiles be removed to? To Germany, Norway, Belgium, Holland and Italy? In which case the Labour government would be taking up the same hypocritical position as their fellow partisan of the pink rose, President Mitterrand of France, who supported the deployment of US cruise missiles in Europe — as long as none went to France.

That the Labour Party should have a — to say the least — ambiguous policy on nuclear weapons should come as no surprise in view of their past record:
  • In 1945 when the first atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a Labour government was in office in Britain and the Labour Prime Minister Attlee had a personal representative at the Nagasaki massacre.
  • It was the same post-war Labour government that took the decision to develop the British Bomb.
  • At the 1957 Labour Party Conference the deputy leader and shadow Foreign Minister, Nye Bevan, pleaded, in a speech opposing the abandoning of the British Bomb, not to be sent "naked into the conference chamber".
  • When the 1960 Labour Party Conference voted in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament the leader of the Party, Hugh Gaitskell,  refused point-blank to accept this decision (like David Steel after a similar decision at the Liberal Assembly last autumn), pledging himself to "fight, fight and fight again" to reverse it; which after much wheeling and dealing to fix the trade union bloc vote the 1961 Labour Conference duly did.
  • The Wilson Labour government elected in 1964 took the decision to modernise the nuclear warheads on the Polaris missiles.

If the present Labour leadership has chosen not to fight, fight and fight again to change conference decisions against the British Bomb, this is because they know they have no chance of winning as in the 1960s. Some of them may even be genuinely convinced that British capitalism has no need to possess the independent power to annihilate Moscow in order to be able to negotiate from a position of strength in conflicts with other capitalist states, but that an enhanced conventional strength would be sufficient. They may well be right but that's not our problem so we'll let the parties aspiring to run the affairs of British capitalism — Labour, the Tories and the Alliance — settle this issue among themselves.

But one thing is clear. Anybody who may be tempted to vote for the Labour Party as being in some way less militaristic than Rambo Reagan, David Owen and the Iron Lady have been forewarned by the Labour Party itself. Labour fully accepts the logic of capitalism that states must arm themselves with the most destructive weapons they can afford in order to be "credible" in the international conflicts that arise all the time under capitalism over markets, trade routes, sources of raw materials, investment outlets and the strategic points to protect these.

Labour has no intention of sending Denis Healey naked into the conference chamber. Those the pamphlet calls "our potential enemies" will be spared that horrible sight, because Healey will be fully clothed with all the deadly conventional weapons needed to uphold the bargaining position of the British capitalist class whose interests he would be representing.
Adam Buick