The case for military action
Why democratic socialists and trade unionists should back this war

by Eric Lee

There are times when socialists have to grit their teeth and admit that a victory for their own country's ruling class in a war would be beneficial for the working class.

There is a long history of this kind of response, going back to Karl Marx himself.

One very good example of Marx endorsing a war and supporting a capitalist government at war came in 1861 when the civil war in the United States broke out. Marx correctly saw that a victory for the slave-owning states of the south against the industrial capitalists of the north would be disastrous. He enthusiastically supported the US President, Lincoln, and encouraged the ruthless prosecution of the war.

But Marx did more than just offer 'critical support' to the US government. He advocated an expansion of the war, and particularly of the war goals. Marx was not interested in the limited goals of restoring the union, as declared by Lincoln. He wanted the war transformed into a revolutionary war, including a freeing of the slaves, which was something the American government was reluctant to proclaim.

It should be recalled that the US was at that time, 140 years ago, in very expansionist mode. It had recently waged war against Mexico, managing to seize vast terroritories in the south west. It was in the final stages of a brutal war of extermination against native Americans -- a war for which the term 'ethnic cleansing' simply does not do justice. The American civil war was followed by rapid economic growth which eventually led to increasing US involvement in international wars. In other words, the decision by the northern capitalist rulers in the US to prosecute a war against the slave-owning Confederacy could be seen as part of a broader program of imperial expansion, as indeed it was.

None of this prevented Marx (and Engels) from enthusiastically supporting the United States.

This was not the only war launched by capitalist and imperialist powers which the founders of modern socialism lent their support to. Only a few years earlier, Marx and Engels railed against the failure of the British and French to more aggressively pursue their war against Russian tsarism -- a war now known to us as the 'Crimean War'.

This was but one episode of many in Marx's life in which he put a higher priority on crushing tsarist Russia than on nearly anything else. Marx's legendary Russophobia had its rational roots in something quite real: the role played by this reactionary regime as the 'gendarme of Europe'. Marx never forgot the role played by Russian troops in the crushing of the 1848 revolutions.

Why bring up the American Civil War and the Crimean War at this moment, in 2001? What could be possibly be relevant here?

A few things come to mind.

First of all, when expansionist, imperialist, capitalist countries go to war, socialists do not always and everywhere have to oppose them. There can sometimes be cases when socialists might give such countries their enthusiastic support.

Second, when capitalist countries go to war against even more reactionary regimes (e.g., the American Confederacy or the Russian Empire -- or the Third Reich), the natural reaction of socialists should be at the very least a vague sympathy for the capitalists. Simply put, a victory for the other side would be catastrophic.

Third, when supporting those capitalist regimes in their wars, socialists do not have to confine themselves to supporting the war aims proposed by the ruling class -- they can propose additional aims which would widen the war and lead to different results.

I thought of these things when looking at the knee-jerk reaction of most of the Left to the US-British attacks on Afghanistan which began this month.

Some of the groups concerned have suggested that the slogan 'Defend Afghanistan!' would be an appropriate one for the left to adopt at this time, indicating a clear preference which I, for one, reject.

I think a very strong case can be made for the left to support a vigorous military campaign against the terrorist network responsible for the 11 September attacks on the United States -- a campaign which would also target regimes such as the Taleban which provide sanctuary for such terrorists.

It is not necessary to argue that case today among most mainstream left parties, as most are already giving their support to the campaign. The Greens in Germany have been unusually pro-American in recent days, and the ruling social democrats in France, Germany and elsewhere were early supporters of a military response by the West to terror. So was the American trade union movement, which hailed the 'aggressive' US response.

The revolutionary Left in countries like Britain is, in this sense, isolated. A few thousand demonstrators have been mobilised recently, but there does not appear to be any genuine groundswell of protest. There is no mass anti-war movement.

Now, there is nothing wrong with taking an unpopular view -- indeed, it can sometimes reflect a kind of courage. But to take a viewpoint which is at once opportunistic and at the same time unpopular simply makes no sense. Particularly if that viewpoint is morally wrong.

There is no question in my mind that some elements of the Left have utterly lost their moral compass -- and this was revealed quite clearly during the Kosovo war. That same moral bankruptcy that was revealed by those who gave their support to the criminal Milosevic regime has not gone away. Those who thought that the genocide being waged against the Kosovars was a Western propaganda ploy are today claiming that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was somehow the result of US foreign policy.

Those on the Left who understood in 1999 that it might be necessary to grit one's teeth and give limited and critical support to Nato -- if that was the only way to save the Kosovars from extermination -- should today consider how they react to the scourge of international terrorism, particularly in the virulent form we saw on 11 September.

To embrace the 'anti-war movement' for opportunisitic reasons while knowing that it is as morally bankrupt as it was two years ago is counter-productive because this is not now, and will not become, an unpopular war.

A better position for the Left would be to react as Marx might have done, seeing in this war an opportunity -- or a series of opportunities -- to reduce some regional tensions in the world (Palestine, Kashmir), to oust at least one super-reactionary regime (the Taleban), and to bring an end once and for all to the threat of weapons of mass destruction being used by insane terrorists backed by rogue states.

In this war as in all others, socialists have to ask themselves what will be the result if one side or the other wins -- as usually happens in a war. If you feel that a victory by Osama bin Laden and his Taleban 'hosts' would do some good for the world, then by all means shout 'Defend Afghanistan!'

As for the rest of us, it is time to grit our teeth and hope for a swift and decisive victory by the West.