In humanity's name

In this edited version of his speech to a CPGB school in December, leading Socialist Alliance member Mike Marqusee argues for socialists to adopt an ethical approach in opposition to war

The left - both Marxist and non-Marxist - has been bedevilled in its approach to a number of recent wars by a residual habit of looking for heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys, and a hierarchy of worthiness of support and worthiness of victory or defeat. There is a perception that Marxists always take sides in wars. I think that is reducing war to the status of a football match. I see nothing in Marxism that can be interpreted in that way. This simplistic thinking leads to the conclusion that either the USA is so wicked and evil that we must support anyone who resists or opposes it, or even appears to resist or oppose it; or, on the other hand the Taliban, or variants or islamic fundamentalism are so wicked, reactionary and evil that even US imperialism is better than that. I think both of these positions are illogical and immoral. There is a longstanding socialist critique of warfare itself, which predates Marx, although he certainly echoed it. It can be traced right back through Thomas Paine to the Levellers. It is both an ethical and a class-based critique. While it has things in common with a pacifist position, it is not the same as that: it is a rationalist and humanist position. I have no interest in any Marxism that is not humanism, which I regard as a betrayal of the working class. We know from history that it is poor and working class people who bear the brunt of the suffering in nearly all wars. Wars are made by ruling elites in their own interests, employing various means of mobilisation, including deception and cynicism, to do that. They organise and manage these wars in their interests, because they do not pay the price with few exceptions. Working class people pay the price on both sides; and, more generally, the price is paid with a diminution of class politics and working class internationalism. Which is one reason why the achievement of a society without war, and without violence in a broader sense, has always been one of the key aims of socialists. They have said socialism is the only way we can get rid of it. The scourge of warfare in Europe, in modern times, and throughout the rest of the world in recent times, is an intense and intimate reality for hundreds of millions of people. And it makes it impossible to pursue the aims of social justice and socialism. I think that we should insist again and again that we will not have a world in peace until we have a world that is based on egalitarian and socialist sharing of resources under democratic control. One of the basic arguments which should be applied, not just to acts of war as classically defined, but also to the deployment of violence in general, is that, given the certainty of destruction and human tragedy implied in any act of war, whether its cause is right, whether it is necessary or not, let us be clear that it implies appalling tragedy and suffering that one would rather not see happening; given that, one has to be reasonably certain that the outcome of any act of war will be preferable to not going to war. This is not a Marxist argument, but I think it is an argument that Marxists should accept as part of their overall critique. It seems to be simply rational. It is the way that thoughtful people actually live their lives. A compassionate person who looks at their neighbours without hostility or antagonism will ask, 'Before I engage in an act of violence, is there an alternative?' - violence is clearly a bad, destructive, wasteful thing in itself. It is quite clear that what some people call the liberal elite - people who write leaders in newspapers and comment in the media - has quite clearly abandoned this rational position. There is an unthinking acceptance of warfare as a method of imposing one's will or resolving problems, which leads to the embrace of militarism in the media and its spread in public culture in general. In the United States leading commentators are now openly talking about the acceptability of torture in pursuit of national aims. It is openly said that war crimes are OK if your side commits them. These arguments have to be answered, and they cannot be answered simply by saying that your side is wrong and the other side is right. They can only be answered within a wider humanist and, I think, Marxist discourse. Human cost Therefore it is right for both the Socialist Alliance and the Stop the War Coalition to emphasise the human cost of war, to emphasise the shamefulness of the deployment of cluster bombs, and of carpet-bombing and warlordism in general - to emphasise the irrationality of the whole enterprise. If Marxism and socialism are not founded firmly on an appeal to universal humanity, if they are not based on an assumption - a non-negotiable assumption in my view - about the preciousness of each and every human life, if they do not appeal to those who join together in a shared horror of human destruction involved in warfare, then they will not reach out beyond their present enclaves, and rightly so. They will not be able to address basic human questions that everyone faces when they are asked whether they support this war or not. Having said that, however, the Socialist Alliance and socialists in general, while stressing the irrationality of warfare, particularly this kind of warfare, which a huge and powerful nation wages against an impoverished and marginalised people, should stress its rationality in ruling class terms. We live in a unipolar world. This war is about the building, policing, maintenance and entrenchment of an empire; about the hegemony of US interests - and I think it is important, given that we live in Britain, that we emphasise very clearly that it is a US-led coalition - but they are also the interests of the capitalist class in all the rich nations. So I do think the core of the issue is about empire and imperialism, and that alone can explain how and why this war has unfolded. But that does not mean abandoning in any way the humanist and rationalist critique of the sheer wastefulness, destructiveness and inhumanity of the war. What is happening in the United States provides a very good example of what I have said. When I watched the horror unfold on TV on September 11, a number of things occurred to me immediately. Firstly that it was unbelievable. And second that it would be an absolute disaster for the oppressed, and everyone trying to resist oppression all over the world. That it would be a disaster for the Palestinians, that it would be a disaster for working people in the United States. And so it has proved. In New York alone since September 11 100,000 people have lost their jobs. Across the United States, estimates vary, but there could be up to half a million jobs lost. This is a relatively short period, but the intensity of redundancies matches that in the first wave of recession in the early 1980s, which was a debacle for the working class of the United States from which whole sections have never recovered. Go around any inner-city area in America and you will see to this day the results of that disaster. Meanwhile, the American ruling class is now so confident - confident of its control of the media, of the fact that it is politically unchallenged, of its ability to get away with anything it likes in this unipolar world - it has been simply lining its own pockets, in one of the most incredible acts of plunder that I have seen in my lifetime: since September 11 the Congress has voted for a huge economic 'stimulus package'. While some people will justify this with the usual trickle-down theory, nothing is trickling down anywhere. The largest US corporations do not pay a large amount of tax anyway, but they have taken advantage of September 11 by claiming a refund of virtually all the federal taxes they have paid since 1984. IBM will get a cheque for a billion, for example. US setback Overwhelmingly people in the United States support the war. In the American labour movement, the impact of September 11 is really tragic. Although there is some hope, there is a lot to worry about. There has been a modest revival in US labour over the last few years, albeit from an incredibly low point. There has been, for example, the development of progressive, democratic rank and file tendencies in many unions. Some engaged in strikes and even won them. Most importantly, thousands of trade unionists marched in Seattle along with the other anti-capitalist forces. All this came to a screeching halt on September 11. Almost immediately afterwards all the major unions issued statements supporting the war, in some cases in the most bloodthirsty language. They also immediately downgraded their own participation in anti-WTO demonstrations, etc. They said, we are not getting involved in anything that might be construed as anti-American; we all have to pull together in the face of this national emergency. This is a familiar story for socialists throughout history, but it is taking a pretty extreme form in the United States at the moment. I profoundly disagree with those who have made statements to the effect that 'war is a good opportunity for socialists'. I do not believe that. I think this is based on a profound misreading of what happened during the Vietnam war movement. The anti-war movement - where my whole political life started - became a magnificent movement with a huge social impact in many countries. But, my god, at least two million were killed and people in south-east Asia are still suffering. Some say what a great success the anti-war movement was. A great success? It took us seven years to stop the bombing. Let us remember that more bombs were dropped by the United States on Vietnam than were dropped by all of the combatants during World War II. I am proud of the role I played in the movement, but I do not think it should be held up as some great triumph and I do not want the present war to last as long. The immediate thing now is to stop the war: that is an actual, objective requirement. To do that requires building a broad alliance with non-socialists, not to mention the diversity of opinion among socialists themselves. Otherwise we cannot either put the forces out onto the streets or in the broadest sense win over public opinion sufficiently to change the balance and at least restrain imperialism from going all out. Priorities This may sound hopelessly gradualist and reformist, but I am so alarmed by the current situation that this is my first goal. I want to put a brake on these bastards and to do that we need to be part of a broader movement. The duty of socialists is first to be in that movement and build it, independently of their own ideas. This is not a betrayal or censorship of our own ideas. On the contrary, it is rooted in our understanding of what the priorities for working class people are. Certainly we should advance the socialist critique. Now that the war is changing in character, that becomes more necessary than ever. But the Stop the War Coalition itself represents a real step forward compared, for example, with the Committee for Peace in the Balkans or the campaign against the war in Iraq. People ran those movements in an entirely anti-democratic and exclusionary way. I was actually physically removed from meetings of both those committees, even though I was a Labour Party member at the time - I just was not the right kind of Labour Party member. By contrast, the Stop the War Coalition was founded and organised through open, non-exclusive public meetings, not all of which were run properly, but real progress has been made. The results of this, something new and valuable, were seen on November 18. We were able to put together a huge, broad demonstration in remarkably quick time. I do agree that the Socialist Alliance should be more pro-active in developing its own profile, both within the broader anti-war movement and in general. I hope we do not simply blame the Socialist Workers Party for this - I think we are all at fault here and I include myself. The Socialist Alliance is still embryonic, still developing. We were not capable of collectively putting together a quicker or bigger response. Nonetheless, in Hackney, for example, where I live, the Socialist Alliance set up the Stop the War Coalition and has organised speakers in the name of the Socialist Alliance, all of whom have tried to link the war to the war at home, if you like. Where the SWP just went off and did its own thing, I told them I thought that was wrong. But we did make it easy for them as well, because in too many places people were too busy trying to sort out the details of a socialist critique of the war, which was only going to be evolved through discussions like this over time - not recognising the urgency of just getting out there with everyone else and saying, 'Stop the war'. I believe it is an urgent priority for working class people everywhere to stop the war: not just on a socialist basis, but to stop it, period. If we do not stop it, everything else we want to do becomes much, much more difficult. I think the work of the Socialist Alliance has been understated slightly by some people. We put out two leaflets, both of which did say more than just 'Stop the war'. The most recent leaflet, which I drafted, and of which some 30,000 copies were distributed, actually explicitly makes two points: first, that there has to be a solution from below, from the Afghani people themselves, and not a superpower carve-up; secondly, the leaflet makes the point that this war is part of a much broader war against the poor, both within our own country and elsewhere. I disagree profoundly with the SWP's categorisation of islamic fundamentalism as a form of populist anti-imperialism. It is certainly true that some fundamentalists use the rhetoric of anti-imperialism in a populist manner. But there is a big difference between appearance and substance, and Marxists should distinguish between those two. No form of fundamentalism has achieved anything anywhere without being implicated with both imperialism and capitalism. I do think, however - and I supported this in the Stop the War Coalition - that reaching out to muslims and muslim communities in this country has been a great source of strength for the anti-war movement. On the November 18 demonstration there was no concession to the Taliban. It was stewarded predominantly by young muslims but there was agreement that anyone who walked around with pro-bin Laden posters should be gently but firmly dissuaded from doing so; likewise with anti-semitic chants. People such as these stewards, who are 'of the left' while retaining their islamic sense of identity, do not need to be lectured by the rest of the so-called left. One of the things they wanted to show was that you could be a muslim in very many different ways and that the equation in the popular tabloids between islam and fundamentalism was a false one. Take the case of the fast-breaking ceremony in Trafalgar Square at the end of the march, which I was happy to support. I was shocked by the number of people who came up to me and quite sincerely equated it with islamic fundamentalism. That is nonsense. Sharing in Iftar is largely a secular, popular pastime, not requiring you to adopt any islamic tenets of faith, and something that is practised by otherwise secular people. One of the reasons, actually, why fundamentalism is growing is that the left is often seen as being against the right to worship. I include amongst the people who share my belief in the preciousness and sanctity of human life, my belief that all value derives from human effort and human interaction, not only Marxists of various stripes, but liberation theologists, progressive muslims and other believers - they like us believe that human life is not measurable in money, nor in the degree to which it can be exploited. When we speak against the war in broad, humanistic terms, we do speak for the majority of humanity. We must build a diverse but effective global coalition against the endless war proposed by imperialism. We have absolutely no alternative but to try to do that.