Rotten politics and military blocs

Events in Serbia have excited favourable comment across the left. With the exception of some of its more demented sections, the revolutionary movement has enthusiastically welcomed the decisive intervention of the masses in the overthrow of the hated Milosevic.

Yet at the time of the conflict in Kosova, many of these same comrades were advocates of a 'military bloc' with the Milosevic regime. The Socialist Workers Party formed an alliance with pro-Belgrade forces in and around the Committee for Peace in the Balkans. Week after week, it filled its press with apologies for the atrocities of Milosevic, for the suppression of the Kosova majority.

The key issue is this: should opposition to Nato's bombing campaign necessarily have led us to a measure of support - in the form of a 'military bloc' or otherwise - to Milosevic? And, had the Belgrade regime won, would his reactionary hold over society have been strengthened or weakened?

A debate on this question has now flared up on the internet discussion list, the UK Left Network, with comrades such as Owen Jones taking the Communist Party to task for our opposition to support for the Milosevic regime, even during the 1999 Nato bombing. This comrade's arguments are particularly crude. However, they express a familiar line of reasoning for the nauseating position of support for Belgrade and other deeply reactionary regimes.

We can usefully summarise the arguments under four headings:

1. "We were only in a military bloc with Milosevic - this in no way implies political support."

An example of the ludicrous nature of this position was supplied from the outer limits of Trotskyism by a group called the International Bolshevik Tendency. Its statement on the round of punishment bombing of Iraq that started on December 17 1998 tells us that, "The international working class has a side in this struggle - and it is with Iraq, and its government" (my emphasis, IBT statement, December 19 1998).

While the IBT's explicit political solidarity with the butcher of Baghdad was condemned by others, it had actually drawn out the logic of the 'military bloc' with admirable clarity.

It is axiomatic for any Marxist that war is a political phenomenon. The Prussian philosopher-soldier, Clausewitz, originally put forward this formula: war is "a continuation of policy by other means". Marx, Engels and Lenin took Clausewitz's definition and added their own materialist insights: that war was fundamentally a product of class society and would only disappear with the negation of class society.

The key is politics. As Lenin put it, "All wars are inseparable from the political systems that engender them. The policy which a given state, a given class within a state, pursued for a long time before the war is inevitably continued by that same class during the war, the form of action alone being changed" (VI Lenin Collected Works Vol. 24, p400).

Thus, a Saddam Hussein or a Slobodan Milosevic conducts a war as the continuation of their politics. If we believe that these are reactionary regimes, with no progressive role to play on history's stage, then we are duty bound as Marxists to oppose their war, to argue for a defeat of the reactionary war waged by a reactionary class. Which state attacked first, which is the more powerful, who is winning and who is losing must be viewed as essentially formal and therefore secondary questions.

Thus, we cannot form a military bloc with classes waging a reactionary war. In reality this means giving political support to the military actions - and therefore the political aims - of our enemies. Instead, it is our job to utilise the dislocation of war to hasten their overthrow. This would be our number one priority even if this led to military reverses for 'our' country. Did Bolshevik agitation and the preparation for the October Revolution itself enhance the fighting capacity of the Russian army, or effectively destroy it? Didn't this lead to temporary military advantage for the Kaiser?

Owen Jones throws his hands skyward and tells us: "I fail to understand why it is so hard to militarily defend those states that come under the onslaught of our own bourgeoisie" (UK Left Network posting, October 7). Marxists do not automatically offer support ('military' or otherwise) to a state simply because it happens to have been attacked by our own. If this actually were the case, we would have backed some pretty dubious regimes historically. The revolutionary method is to evaluate each and every military engagement from the independent standpoint of the world proletariat. We fight to bring to the fore the independent interests of the workers. We resist all attempts to make them political appendages of other classes, above all thoroughly reactionary ones.

Let me try to draw out some of the political consequences of a 'military bloc'. By definition, it must imply an agreement on priorities. First, we need to militarily defeat X, then we can turn to other tasks. It assumes that there is a coincidence of interest - however fleeting and conditional - between the working class and the ruling class in this military clash. For the period of the military conflict, it thus follows that all actions that harm this common war effort must be opposed. By definition, disruption of this joint enterprise is detrimental to the interests of the proletariat (otherwise, why construct the 'military bloc'?).

We have the odd possibility before us that some of our more muscle-bound orthodox Trotskyists could find themselves opposing strikes, supporting scabbing and being complicit in the repression of rebelling workers for the duration of the war.

2. "The historical precedent is the Bolsheviks' 'military bloc' with the Kerensky regime to defeat counterrevolution between the two revolutions of 1917. Yet the Bolsheviks were giving no political support to Kerensky - after all, they subsequently overthrew him."

If Lenin were in favour of a military bloc with the Kerensky regime, quite simply he would have been wrong. However, there is no evidence of this. On the contrary, two instructive articles from this period explicitly rule out such agreements.

In 'Rumours of a conspiracy', Lenin wrote an answer to an article that had suggested that the Bolsheviks were willing to cooperate militarily with forces politically loyal to the provisional government (the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries) against reported counterrevolutionary mobilisations. He condemned this, as "[it would mean] that there was a certain bloc, alliance or agreement between the Bolsheviks and the defencists on 'defence against the counterrevolution'" (VI Lenin CW Vol. 25, p247).

Lenin quotes a resolution from the 6th Congress of the RSDLP that characterises the Mensheviks as members of the "camp of the proletariat's enemies".

He continues: "You do not conclude agreements or make blocs with people who have deserted for good to the enemy camp" (ibid. p251). In fact, "Any Bolshevik who came to terms with the defencists ... or [was] indirectly expressing confidence in the provisional government (which is allegedly being defended against the Cossacks) would, of course, be immediately and deservedly expelled from the Party" (ibid. p251). He explicitly excludes "making any kind of deal" with the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary defencist supporters of the Provisional government - let alone with the Provisional government itself!

Lenin notes that, "A Bolshevik would say, 'Our workers and soldiers will fight the counterrevolutionary troops if they start an offensive now against the provisional government; they will do so not to defend this government ... but to independently defend the revolution as they pursue their own aim" (my emphasis ibid. pp251-2).

Lenin wrote his letter, 'To the central committee of the RSDLP', as the revolt of the counterrevolutionary general Kornilov menaced Petrograd. This rebellion represented a "sharp turn in events". Yet even with black reaction at the gates, Lenin blasts as "unprincipled" those "people (like Volodarsky) who slide into defencism or (like other Bolsheviks) into a bloc with the Socialist Revolutionaries, into supporting the Provisional government". This is "absolutely wrong and unprincipled". Lenin was unflinching: "Neither the capture of Riga nor the capture of Petrograd will make us defencists." Marxists would become defencists "only after the transfer of power to the proletariat".

Despite the looming Kornilov danger, "Even now we must not support Kerensky's government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren't you going to fight Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here ... we are fighting Kornilov, just as Kerensky's troops do, but we do not support Kerensky" (pp289-99).

So what is Lenin's position?

l That the working class is not indifferent to the outcome of the war. While they will form no blocs - military or political - with the Kerensky regime or its defenders, this in no way equates with passive support for the victory of Kornilov.

l That the Bolsheviks will lead those sections of the workers and soldiers they influence into battle against the counterrevolutionaries in order to defend the social conditions that allow them to "pursue their own aim". l The "aim" - as shown by what the Bolsheviks actually did - was to utilise the disruption of military reverses and the disintegration of the army to overthrow the provisional government.

l This - the central "aim" of the Bolsheviks - was pursued without reference to the vicissitudes of the military campaign waged by the provisional government in World War I.

Agitation for revolution is always historically specific. Lenin underlined that the mobilisation of the revolutionary masses against Kornilov meant that "... we must take into account the present situation. We shall not overthrow Kerensky right now" (p289). The provisional government was an organ brought into being by revolution and as such still embodied the illusions of workers who believed they were defending the revolution when they defended it.

Under these conditions, the Bolsheviks campaigned against Kerensky "by demanding a more active, truly revolutionary war against Kornilov ". This represented nothing more that "changing the form of our struggle against Kerensky ... We shall approach the task of overthrowing him in a different way" (p290).

Thus, the conditions were prepared not simply to defend the gains of February against Kornilov, but to prepare for October against Kerensky.

3. "Military victory would speed the downfall of these reaction regimes."

This really is a remarkable argument. Having made common cause with the Milosevic regime because of the 'progressive' struggle it has been waging, the working class has then to disentangle itself politically and ideologically from it in order to overthrow it. Actually, it is the job of Marxists to draw what Trotsky called in a different context an "implacable line of demarcation" between the politics of the working class and those of the ruling class.

Clearly, had the Milosevic regime successfully engaged with imperialism, it is likely that its hold over society would have been strengthened.

4. "Well, one of the belligerents has to win ..."

Owen Jones expresses this already crude, 'lesser-of-two-evils' idea in a particularly philistine way. He writes: "If you oppose [the Serbs] shooting Nato aircraft out of the sky who happen to bombing them (i.e., military support), then in fact you are defending those Nato aircraft from being shot and defending their right to bomb Yugoslavia. In other words, you capitulate to imperialism."

Logically therefore, when Lenin called for the defeat of the Tsarist state in World War I, he must have been calling for the victory of the Kaiser, mustn't he? After all, who else was involved ...?

It is ABC Marxism that calling for the defeat of our main enemy - our indigenous ruling class - does not equate with calling for the victory of another enemy, the ruling class of the some other belligerent country.

In the scenario where two groups of reactionaries go the war with each other, the CPGB calls for the revolutionary defeat of both sides. In other words, we are for the defeat of Britain/Nato and for the defeat of the likes of Milosevic by the working class.

Mark Fischer