Vasily Vereshchagin ‘The apotheosis of war’ 1871

Inspiring debate

Given the awful events in Gaza, Ukraine and the threat of wider bloody conflicts, the CPGB’s Spring 2024 Communist University was fittingly titled ‘Their wars and ours’. Homayoun Kamran reports

All wars create unpredictable conditions with effects far beyond the borders of those directly involved in the conflict. However, in my memory, nothing compares with the current war in Gaza.

At least 30,000 civilians have been killed; the Pentagon puts the number of Palestinian women and children killed since October 8 at 25,000 in what can only be described as ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, aided and abetted by western powers. Children are dying from starvation in north Gaza and aid agencies predict mass starvation in Rafah. In the midst of all this, in the UK we are supposed to feel sorry for politicians (Tory and Labour) who face protests because they support Israel’s genocidal policies. Ministers, members of the shadow cabinet, MPs and the media seem more concerned about the threat posed by a few hundred protestors outside the constituency office or the home of a politician (targeted because he or she supports Israel’s ethnic cleansing) than the genocide unfolding in the Middle East.

We have marched, there have been vigils, walkouts and mini-occupations. The level of support for the London demonstrations has been huge. There are more people than ever demanding a ceasefire, but in the midst of all this we need to educate ourselves about the background to the current war, the history of colonialism and imperialism in the region, facts about regional players and their ‘proxies’. Instead of looking for simple, pacifistic ‘humanitarian’ solutions, we need to arm ourselves with serious rather than imaginary solutions.

It was against this background that the CPGB’s Communist University Spring 2024 was held last weekend. There were five sessions where comrades could question the narratives that perpetuate this war, dismiss the bias often based on false information put forward by the media, and question bourgeois ‘solutions’ to the current conflict. The talks and subsequent discussions gave a unique opportunity to examine the history of the conflict, as well as the realities of war and its far-reaching consequences.


The opening session was Marc Mulholland’s talk under the title, ‘Marxism and revolutionary defeatism’. Comrade Mulholland explained that a better framing would be on Marxism and war, international relations and international boundaries. Marx and Engels, he argued, generally took sides in wars; usually the anti-Russian side. Equally, they did not argue for a general right of self-determination of nations, but stood for Irish and Polish independence, and in 1848 rejected Slavic independence movements.

The parties of the Second International, he said, generally took for granted existing state boundaries whether national, sub-national or multinational. They recognised that states have a right of self-defence; but the 1907 Stuttgart International congress resolution played this down in favour of anti-war agitation. Only the anarchists pointed out that pre-war manoeuvres make it is hard to distinguish who is the aggressor in any war. This turned out to be an acute problem in 1914.

Comrade Mulholland said that Lenin had argued that imperialism, being the last stage of capitalism, meant that both national self-defence and regular parliamentary politics were a thing of the past; it led him to shift from the “strategy of attrition” to a “strategy of overthrow”. But there was a contradiction in his position, in that, while he rejected wars of national self-defence, he favoured a general principle of self-determination of nations, in contrast to the Bukharin-Pyatakov tendency among the Bolsheviks.

Though Lenin wrote extensive theory to justify his arguments, it was always hand in hand with the exigencies of Russian politics, where the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party did not propose a “strategy of attrition”, but stood for an immediate overthrow of the tsarist regime - whether in alliance with the bourgeoisie (the Mensheviks’ policy) or with the peasantry (Bolsheviks). Self-determination of nations looked like a way of breaking up the tsarist regime; once it had been overthrown, the national movements disappeared from Bolshevik strategy, and Poland and Georgia were invaded.

The parties of the Second International more generally, comrade Mulholland argued, were closer to the ideas of the Austro-Marxists Karl Renner and Otto Bauer - trying to find ways of coexistence of nations within the existing states. This reflected the predominantly petty-bourgeois character of the nationalist movements. On the other hand, some leftists tried to ally nationalism and socialism - thus Joseph Pilsudski and James Connolly; whereas on the other hand Rosa Luxemburg offered both good and bad arguments against the idea of Polish independence.

Defeatism, comrade Mulholland said, was broadly the common position of the whole Russian opposition in 1904 and 1916 - even of the liberals. After the February revolution there was a turn to national defence and even the Bolsheviks used arguments blaming the Provisional government for failure to defend Petersburg, and proposed unilateral negotiations (but with a fallback of revolutionary war if they failed). Lenin’s arguments for the Brest-Litovsk treaty - that it would provide a breathing space - were unsound, he claimed: the effect was to trigger civil war immediately.

Meanwhile, however, the right of nations to self-determination became a general fetish, by way of Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Fourteen principles’ - which actually only applied to Germany and Austria. Comrade Mulholland offered fairly extensive objections to the workers’ movement treating it as a principle; better to fight for iterative processes of democratic negotiation to address conflicts of cultural claims, but also to be very cautious about forms of irredentism - whether states reclaiming territory, or minority groups with imperialist backing claiming the right to secede. At the same time, however, he argued that voting for the military budget is a form of support for the government, and socialists should not do it.

This dense presentation, raising a large number of important political issues, gave rise to a lively discussion, ranging from the ideas of Comintern to modern national questions. It started the weekend off very well.

War and the west

In the second session, Yassamine Mather explained the passive response of the Axis of Resistance, led by Iran’s Islamic Republic, and its complicated relationship with Hamas. She pointed to the absence of any protests in Iran, and the current situation of Hezbollah as a coalition partner in the Lebanese government, which is far more concerned about economic stability in that country. Comrade Mather talked about the changing nature of this organisation from the days it represented the poor in south Lebanon to today, when it advocates privatisation and neoliberal economic policies with supporters amongst capitalists in Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon. She dismissed the simplistic notion that Hezbollah is just Iran’s proxy and also explained the rise of the Houthis in Yemen, their situation prior to October 7, and the fact that, far from being Iran’s proxies, they have by all accounts dismissed Iran’s repeated requests to end attacks on shipping in the Bab-Al-Mandab Strait.

Moshé Machover’s talk was entitled ‘Two-state, one-state delusions’, and he took up the theme he has spoken about on a number of occasions in recent weeks. When it comes to the ‘two-state solution’ proposed by the US and its allies (as well as China, Russia and the Middle Eastern states), he is absolutely right to compare this to “people negotiating over how to divide a pizza, while one of them is actually eating part of it as they discuss it.”

Comrade Machover clearly has little time for those who advocate a ‘two-state solution’, considering them as misguided, misinformed or ill-intentioned. He added that, when it comes to a unitary, democratic state encompassing both sides of the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, he does not deem this concept inherently harmful, but considers its current feasibility to be highly unlikely.

He drew attention to the fact that Israeli colonisation is very different in its political economy from the South African one and that the majority of the Israeli Jewish working class has nothing to gain by overthrowing a Zionist regime under a capitalistic economic order. He therefore suggests that the Zionist regime can only be overthrown in a situation where the Hebrew working class in Israel ends its current position as a (relatively privileged) exploited class within a dominant nation to be part of a ruling class without national privileges.

In the next session, Mike Macnair gave a comprehensive history of colonial exploitation in the Middle East, outlining the ways in which the major powers succeeded in outmanoeuvring potential rivals. He spoke of the significance of the region, when it came to British imperialism’s defence of India and the regional role of the East India Company.

He also referred to an argument he has put forward before: that imperialism is essentially an extension of capitalist principles. His main argument revolved around the compelling forces that drove historical entities like the Venetians and the Genoese, alongside the Portuguese, towards territorial colonialism and the establishment of imperialist regimes. According to comrade Macnair, these imperatives mark the genesis of European imperialism and are inherently rooted in the dynamics of capitalism. The essence lies in the imperatives spurred by industrial capitalism on a large scale, necessitating a form of competition that paradoxically undermines competition itself.

Additionally, capitalism’s dependence on credit money, which in turn relies on state intervention, fosters a system where states discriminate against one another, as well as their citizens, in pursuit of mercantilist goals. Hence, every state, in reality, operates within a mercantilist framework, despite claims to the contrary.


Finally Jack Conrad gave a historic view of the human attitude towards war. He referred to Steven Pinker’s book, The better angels of our nature: why violence has declined, where it is argued that violence has significantly decreased over time. As a “bourgeois optimist”, Pinker focuses on more recent history, discounting the ancient past up to the Neolithic era, some 12,000 years ago. He asserts that modern society has seen a notable decline in violence, compared to earlier periods.

However, critics argue that Pinker’s exclusion of the ancient past from his analysis sinks his thesis, as evidence suggests that prehistoric societies were noticeably peaceful, with systematic violence, ie, war, only emerging with the decay of original communism and the onset of the Neolithic period. He went on to describe the Neolithic as a counterrevolution, not least because we witnessed the defeat of the female sex, the emergence of states and the development of professional armed bodies of men. In hunter-gatherer societies, all male adults are armed for hunting, but in class-based societies, specialised armed groups arose, particularly the warrior class. This class had a distinct societal function beyond defence; they were trained in the arts of war from a young age to protect society’s resources, especially with the transition to agriculture, when there was the constant risk of external raids. However, these armed groups often evolved into a parasitic class, living off the labour of others.

This was a fascinating session, and hopefully we will have an article based on this talk in a coming issue of the Weekly Worker. Similarly, all the other sessions were also very interesting and, while the live attendance was not great, the online videos and podcasts of the event have already attracted hundreds of viewers and listeners.

CU videos can be watched at: www.youtube.com/c/communistpartyofgreatbritain.