Marxism, War and the Fight For Socialist Revolution

Letter Appended

Reprinted from Young Spartacus pages of Workers Vanguard Nos. 795 and 796, 17 and 31 January 2003.

We publish below a two part series, slightly edited from an internal educational presentation given January 2003 at a Spartacist League meeting in New York City by Alan Wilde, editor of Workers Vanguard.

Part 1

Karl Marx’s 1845 “Theses on Feuerbach” is generally considered one of the founding documents of Marxism. Feuerbach was a German materialist philosopher. In one of his works, he wrote, as an expression of his materialist outlook, that for philosophy “the truth is not that which has been thought, but that which has been not only thought, but seen, heard and felt.” Marx challenged the insufficiency of such an outlook, declaring: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

As Marxists today, our starting point remains the same as that of Marx and Engels. And this is shown in our approach to the question of war. It is not enough to analyze and explain, as important as that may be. What we have to put forward is a program, based on material reality, to fundamentally change the nature of things, necessarily including a political/ economic system that breeds imperialist war. Everything else—from our understanding of the working class as the only revolutionary force in modern society, to our understanding of the reactionary nature of capitalist imperialism, to the need to build a Marxist workers party—flows from the question of how to change the world.

The U.S. is currently gearing up for a war with Iraq, which is all but inevitable. Some 100,000 American troops and support personnel are already assembled in the Persian Gulf region. The trepidation about war that was recently expressed by America’s imperialist rivals melts away as the insatiable appetites of the world’s only superpower, which outguns them all combined by orders of magnitude, confront them. The Arab regimes—venal, pathetic and bloody hacks that enforce imperialism’s dictates upon their populations—only beg for a UN cover for U.S. imperialism’s designs. Israel could well be planning to drive most of the Palestinians out under the cover of war.

Saddam Hussein is a dangerous man with weapons of mass destruction, says the U.S. government. Never mind that his armies are a third of what they were during the time of the 1991 Gulf War, and never mind the bloody UN sanctions that have killed more than a million and a half Iraqis and have deprived the regime of any material to upgrade its military. Never mind that all the crimes that the U.S. accuses Hussein of carrying out were carried out before the 1991 Gulf War, prior to which he was an ally of the Americans. It was the U.S. that helped provide him with biological and chemical weapons to be liberally used against the Iranians during the Iran/Iraq War in the 1980s.

Most of all, never mind the fact that no one possesses more weapons of mass destruction than the American imperialists, who have not only enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world several times over but the world’s largest stockpile of biological and chemical weapons. The U.S. was the only country in the world to ever use nuclear weapons, against Japan during World War II, and it has repeatedly seriously contemplated using them, as during the Vietnamese and Korean wars. And the only thing stopping them was the Soviet Union’s own nuclear arsenal which is a very good reason why we defend nuclear arms in the hands of the workers states, regardless of how badly bureaucratically deformed they may be, as in the case of North Korea. North Korea’s recent actions, and the U.S.’s guarded response, underline our point that the only real measure of sovereignty left is possession of nukes. It also indicates how the post-Soviet one-superpower world is far more dangerous than what was before. With Bush now declaring the right to carry out “pre-emptive” strikes against any perceived enemy, not only the deformed workers states, but every tinpot capitalist dictator who doesn’t want to be on the receiving end of American “liberation” will probably do everything they can to get a nuclear arsenal.

We oppose U.S. imperialism’s war against semicolonial Iraq. But our opposition differs greatly from the liberal and pacifist opposition of the reformist left, which has organized mass demonstrations against the potential war. The International Socialist Organization, Workers World Party, Revolutionary Communist Party, etc. have as both their starting and finishing points simple opposition to the war. This is an expression of pacifism because what they don’t express is any military solidarity with Iraq against the United States—i.e., they don’t take a side. As Marxists, we understand that there is a vast difference between the pacifism of the masses—of the workers or, say, the majority of youth who come out to the antiwar protests, who are in a deformed way expressing distrust in imperialism—and bourgeois pacifism (or for that matter the pacifism promoted by fake-leftist outfits that serves to reinforce in the consciousness of workers and radical youth the political outlook of the ruling class).

As Marxists we reject pacifism because in the end, regardless of what motivates it, it can only serve to disarm workers and the oppressed in the face of a well-armed and very brutal ruling class that recognizes none of the constraints of pacifism. Today, any American war against Iraq would be reactionary, unjust and predatory. Our opposition to this war is not based on a general opposition to all wars. In the opening lines of Socialism and War (1915), written in the midst of World War I, Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin underlines that Marxists must assess each war independently. Our line on particular wars is determined by our programmatic opposition to the imperialist order and our struggle in the interests of the working class internationally. That all wars are bloody and barbarous does not determine our political attitude toward them. Look at the American Civil War, the bloodiest war of the 19th century. Only the most philistine pacifists and outright racists could possibly oppose this war on the part of the North against the Southern slavocracy.

In the current conflict, the U.S. is likely to win against Iraq rather easily. But occupation of that country, with its conflicting ethnic groupings and well-developed civil society, could spark massive resistance. And regardless of how bloody, brutal or barbaric that resistance is in its methods, it would be just and defensive. Any move by Iraq to defeat or kick out the imperialist invaders is something any revolutionary would welcome wholeheartedly. Lenin addressed this very point in Socialism and War: “If tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, or India on Britain, or Persia or China on Russia, and so on, these would be ‘just,’ and ‘defensive’ wars, irrespective of who would be the first to attack; any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states victory against the oppressor, slave-holding and predatory ‘Great’ Powers.”

Revolutionary Defense of Iraq Against U.S. Attack

In a conflict between the U.S. and Iraq, we are revolutionary defensists—i.e., we have a military side with Iraq against U.S. imperialism. We want U.S. imperialism to lose and Iraq to win. There are two questions here: how and why. Certainly any military resistance by the Iraqi people to the imperialist invaders is something we’d defend. But let’s look at reality here. We’ve noted several times in Workers Vanguard that Iraq hasn’t the military might to defeat an American imperialist invasion. Therefore, the main weapon, the main method of defending Iraq, lies in the pursuit of the class struggle in the imperialist countries, especially the U.S.

Centrist outfits like the Internationalist Group (IG) and Workers Power scream to “defeat” U.S. imperialism. Bear in mind that they scream mainly in cyberspace, hardly ever when intersecting workers. But be that as it may, we, too, are for the defeat of U.S. imperialism, in this particular war and generally. But you cannot just wave reality away. How do you defeat U.S. imperialism? Is that going to be the work of Iraq, on a military plane? The point that we emphasize in our polemics against the IG about hot air and empty phrasemongering is that what is disappeared or minimized in their writings is the instrumentality to bring about the defeat of U.S. imperialism, not just in a particular war on the military plane, but politically—domestically and internationally. The IG denounces our call for class struggle at home as nationally narrow and as “counterposed to the call to defeat the imperialists abroad” (Internationalist, Fall 2001). This is in fact a position that runs counter to the ABCs of Marxism.

Capitalism, by its very exploitative nature, creates its own gravediggers in the proletariat, which alone has the social power to bring about the downfall of capitalism—by virtue of the fact that it has its hands directly on the means of production—and the objective class interests to do so. Military defeats abroad certainly help to bring about an extreme sharpening in the class contradictions of a particular country—war is the mother of revolutions. But it is fundamentally the working class that has the power to accomplish this historic task. We do not raise the call for class struggle at home with the pollyannaish belief that this particular war is going to meet its end in immediate social revolution in the U.S. We raise it in order to cut through the “national unity” mongering of the ruling class, to bring the working class to the understanding that it alone has the power to defeat the American imperialist system through workers revolution. Out of working-class and social struggle and through the intervention of revolutionary Marxists, the workers party essential for workers to take power will emerge.

Now, why do we fight for the defeat of U.S. imperialism in this and all its military adventures? Because every setback, every military defeat the U.S. encounters would serve the interests of the international working class. And in that sense, with that appraisal, we stand on fundamentally different ground than pacifism and reformism.

Our starting point is how to further the struggles of the working class internationally. A defeated or weakened U.S. imperialism would mean more room for class struggle to emerge at home. It would be accompanied by a major moral, political and economic shakeup. Weakened U.S. imperialism would mean less U.S. interventions against peoples of the world, as the example of U.S. imperialism’s defeat in Vietnam has shown. Imagine how much good that would do the Palestinians in their struggle against Israeli occupation. It would mean more room for struggles by working people in the semicolonial world and the opportunity to build revolutionary parties in the course of sharpened struggles in such backward regions. Also, a weakened U.S. imperialism would mean that workers in Europe and Japan would not as easily perceive U.S. imperialism as the main enemy, i.e., it would cut some ground out from under appeals to their capitalist rulers to stand up to the American behemoth. And this would allow for a greater development of the class struggle there. For all these reasons, we say that the international proletariat, everywhere, has a stake in defending Iraq and siding with it against U.S. imperialism.

That’s the defensism part of revolutionary defensism—now for the revolutionary part. Our defense of Iraq does not mean any support to the Hussein regime, which is savage, bloody, dictatorial and all the rest. In fact, defense of Iraq demands the sharpest political opposition to the bourgeoisie in Iraq, because it is precisely bourgeois rule that subordinates a country like Iraq to imperialism. Try to look at it from the point of view of an Iraqi Marxist. A revolutionary party in Iraq would demand and agitate for a revolutionary war to defend the country from imperialism. Such a party would demand the arming of the people, would seek to do revolutionary work in the military. It would fight for full rights for the oppressed peoples of Iraq, like the Kurds and Shi’ites, and seek to win them over to the struggle against the invaders. It would make absolutely clear that the venal Iraqi bourgeoisie in fighting the U.S. is not leading some kind of anti-imperialist struggle, but simply had a falling out with its former patron, and that the very system of capitalist imperialism means that the local bourgeoisie is tied to and subordinated to the imperialists—i.e., that so long as capitalism remains in the country, Iraq will be subjugated by foreign imperialism, regardless of the outcome of this particular war. Such a party would not lose sight for a moment of the fact that while the imperialist invaders are the main enemy, the bourgeoisie at home is also an enemy. At the same time, such a party would issue proclamations of solidarity with the international working class, especially in the U.S., in order to spur them to oppose the onslaught by the American invaders through concrete class-struggle actions.

For the Political Independence of the Working Class

Last year, the centrist League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) wrote an article on Israel where, speaking of the Arab bourgeois regimes, they declared: “The Arab masses must challenge them to put up or shut up—send arms to the Palestinians! The street protests in support of the intifada are vital, but they need to be joined by massive general strikes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the other countries of the Middle East demanding arms for the Palestinians” (Proletarian Revolution, Spring 2002). Now, we and LRP have fundamental differences on the Near East, but I want to address this one question because it’s relevant. As a rule, it’s very rare that Marxists raise positive demands on a capitalist state—demands that the capitalist state do something; usually we stick to negative demands—demands that the capitalist state stop doing something. The problem is that if you ask the capitalist state to do something, you might actually get it. Except that you’d get it on their terms.

If the Arab bourgeoisies were to send arms to the Palestinians, it would be to pursue their own aims, not the struggle for Palestinian self-determination. And if you call on them to send arms, then you’re placing confidence in their ability and willingness to wage a fight against Zionism, becoming politically responsible for whatever outcomes such a policy might produce. This is not Marxism. It is capitulation to Arab nationalism. It simply amounts to trying to fashion capitalism—and in this case, some of the most obscene, pitiful and pro-imperialist bourgeoisies—to serve your interests. It doesn’t work.

Having said all that, if Egypt or Iran or whoever were to send arms to the Palestinians—or Iraq for that matter—we would not oppose that. As explained in a 1941 article in the Militant, newspaper of the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party: “There’s a difference between not raising any objection, when a capitalist government sends aid, and agitating for such aid. The key to the whole question consists in the understanding that we cannot rely on bourgeois governments to aid our cause. Neither can we take any responsibility for bourgeois governmental policy.” Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky addressed this point quite powerfully in his 1938 essay “Learn to Think”:

“Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case?... Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultraleftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this event the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists—not proletarian revolutionists.

“At the same time, the French maritime workers, even though not faced with any strike whatsoever, would be compelled to exert every effort to block the shipment of ammunition intended for use against the rebels. Only such a policy on the part of the Italian and French workers constitutes the policy of revolutionary internationalism.”

This statement by Trotsky captures the gist of the question of revolutionary defensism: that the international proletariat must do all it can to aid the oppressed country against imperialist attack while maintaining complete political independence from the bourgeoisie.

Revolutionary Defeatism in First World War

The position of revolutionary defensism in this U.S. war against Iraq and similar wars by an imperialist or predatory power against a dependent, colonial or semicolonial country should be contrasted with the Leninist position of revolutionary defeatism worked out in the course of the First World War. When World War I erupted, it was not a surprise to most socialists. For years, there had been a mad struggle for colonies between the great powers, a mad struggle that could easily—and eventually did—spill over into a great war for colonial possessions and spheres of economic influence. Socialists recognized this before 1914, when the war broke out. In 1907, the Second International had its conference in Stuttgart, which passed a resolution on war, written in part by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, which stated:

“If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working class and of its parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the consolidating activity of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the accentuation of the class struggle and of the general political situation.

“Should war break out none the less, it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and to do all in their power to utilize the economic and political crisis caused by the war to rouse the people and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.”

Comrades know of the historic betrayal of the Second International, when nearly every section supported its own imperialist rulers in the war. This betrayal first emerged on 4 August 1914, when the entire parliamentary fraction of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) voted for war credits so that the rulers could finance their war. The vote for war credits by the SPD marked a fundamental betrayal of Marxism. The SPD helped to push the international proletariat into the slaughterhouse. In her wartime pamphlet titled The Crisis in the German Social Democracy, but better known as the Junius Pamphlet since it was written under the pseudonym of Junius, Rosa Luxemburg powerfully described how the war showed the true nature of capitalism, ripping apart all the hypocrisy that imperialism uses to pursue its aims:

“Shamed, dishonored, wading in blood and dripping with filth—thus stands bourgeois society. And so it is. Not as we usually see it, pretty and chaste, playing the roles of peace and righteousness, of order, of philosophy, ethics and culture. It shows itself in its true, naked form—as a roaring beast, as an orgy of anarchy, as a pestilential breath, devastating culture and humanity.”

Right after the war credits vote, Lenin declared the Second International dead; Luxemburg characterized it as a “stinking corpse.” And it was in this period that the policy of revolutionary defeatism was advanced. This was a reactionary war on every side, a gruesome fight by big and little imperialist powers over how many countries and peoples they would hold as slaves. Marxists had no side in this war, and in fact, the defeat of one’s own bourgeoisie was the lesser evil. The aim was to turn this imperialist war into a civil war between the exploited class, the proletariat, and the warmongering exploiters, the imperialist bourgeoisie.

But there is an interesting point to note here. Working for the defeat of your own imperialists did not mean advocating the victory of the other side. The position of revolutionary defeatism was to be taken up by the working classes in all the belligerent countries—i.e., they were all supposed to work for the defeat of their rulers. And this was in fact a point of polemic between Trotsky, who occupied a centrist position at the time, and Lenin. Trotsky claimed that Lenin’s position—that the defeat of the Russian imperialists was the lesser evil—amounted to social-patriotism toward Germany. Lenin replied in a July 1915 article titled “The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War”:

“The phrase-bandying Trotsky has completely lost his bearings on a simple issue. It seems to him that to desire Russia’s defeat means desiring the victory of Germany.... To help people that are unable to think for themselves, the Berne resolution...made it clear that in all imperialist countries the proletariat must now desire the defeat of its own governments....

“What is the substitute proposed for the defeat slogan? It is that of ‘neither victory nor defeat’.... This, however, is nothing but a paraphrase of the ‘defence of the fatherland’ slogan. It means shifting the issue to the level of a war between governments (who, according to the content of this slogan, are to keep to their old stand, ‘retain their positions’), and not to the level of the struggle of the oppressed classes against their governments! It means justifying the chauvinism of all the imperialist nations, whose bourgeoisie are always ready to say—and do say to the people—that they are ‘only’ fighting ‘against defeat’.”

The German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht’s slogan “The Main Enemy Is at Home” provided a powerful and popular distillation of revolutionary defeatism. It was broadcast to all the workers of the belligerent countries, not only those of Germany. It was a recognition that to the German workers, for example, the French imperialists, the Russian imperialists, etc. were enemies, but that the main enemy was German imperialism. It was a call to turn the imperialist war into a civil war against the ruling classes who were pushing millions of young workers into an unprecedented slaughter.

The “main enemy” slogan is a popular expression of revolutionary defeatism, which in a nutshell applies when a war is reactionary on all sides. So, in contrast, as I’ve already stated, the U.S.-led war on Iraq would be just and defensive on the part of Iraq—we therefore have a side. But wars like World War I, for example, are simply over division and redivision of imperialist booty and are reactionary on all sides. Likewise, regional wars like the Iran/Iraq War or the Arab/Israeli wars of 1967 and ’73, where none of the combatants were imperialist powers, are also reactionary on all sides because neither side’s victory could possibly bring about an advance in the position of the proletariat, either internationally or in these particular countries. Hence, we adopt a revolutionary defeatist position in such wars as well, fighting for the defeat of all the belligerent countries through proletarian seizure of power.

Part 2

Revolutionary defeatism (that is, fighting for the defeat of all belligerent powers in a war through socialist revolution) and revolutionary defensism (standing for the military defense of a backward country against an imperialist or predatory power) are generalities that help to guide Marxists, but they are not dogmas. Marxism is a living science, and is therefore anti-dogmatic. The positions we hold on war today are a product of the development of both capitalism and the Marxist and workers movements. Along those lines, it is useful to look at how Marxism has historically approached the question of war.

In a certain sense, Marxism came on the scene with the publication of the Communist Manifesto, which was written in late 1847, on the eve of a great and general upheaval throughout Europe. To understand war and Marxism at that time, one has to understand that this was a period marking about the end of when the bourgeoisie was still a revolutionary, and hence a progressive class. Though it wasn’t the first bourgeois revolution, the Great French Revolution of 1789 was the most decisive in bringing the bourgeoisie to political power and destroying feudalism in that country. Within a few years, France was invaded by a terrified feudal Europe, and in turn France waged war on Europe. And it was a new soldier that was fighting in France, not one fighting to defend the land or property of his feudal lord, but one fighting for the nation, for something broader than his own provincial existence—for the defense and spreading of enormous gains and unprecedented promises of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Within France, the radical bourgeois Jacobins took over in the early 1790s, executing the former king and instituting a regime of revolutionary democracy and terror against the counterrevolution. By the end of the 18th century, however, the Jacobins had been overthrown by right-wing elements. The social revolution was not overturned but the regime of mass political democracy was replaced by one of dictatorial bonapartism against the masses. This found its most profound expression in Napoleon—a former Jacobin—who ruled France as emperor until 1814. Napoleon, for his own expansionist reasons, also waged war against Europe. And in the process he did something quite extraordinary. Most everywhere he went, whether it be Italy, Germany, or elsewhere, he overturned the existing feudal property relations and instituted in their place bourgeois property forms. He had to base his rule on the property forms on which his power rested—bourgeois property forms. Napoleon himself had an understanding of what he was doing; he called himself a “soldier of the Revolution.”

Now, the reason I went through all this was to impress the point that in 1848, Marx and Engels still saw revolutionary potential in the European bourgeoisies. Here’s one very interesting example. In a January 1848 article by Engels, he supports—repeat, supports—the French invasion of Algeria—i.e., he still saw the potential for Napoleonic-type wars by the French bourgeoisie:

“The conquest of Algeria is an important and fortunate fact for the progress of civilisation.... And if we may regret that the liberty of the Bedouins of the desert has been destroyed, we must not forget that these same Bedouins were a nation of robbers.... All these nations of free barbarians look very proud, noble and glorious at a distance, but only come near them and you will find that they, as well as the more civilised nations, are ruled by the lust of gain, and only employ ruder and more cruel means. And after all, the modern bourgeois, with civilisation, industry, order, and at least relative enlightenment following him, is preferable to the feudal lord or the marauding robber, with the barbarian state of society to which they belong.”

Marx and Engels would soon come to recognize that occupation by the European powers distorted the development of backward countries, and that chauvinism among the proletariat in the advanced countries was a huge obstacle to socialist consciousness.

The revolutions of 1848 had a couple of characteristics. They were democratic revolutions, uprisings to bring about political democracy as well as to destroy any remnants left of feudalism in Europe. In Germany, the revolution also had the vital character of attempting to unify the country, which until 1871 was split into numerous princely states, each ruled by its own prince or king. The revolutions initially involved all the classes of society, except, of course, the feudal-derived classes. But a couple of things became clear as the revolutions continued. The first is that the bourgeoisie feared the prospect of revolutionary upheaval more than the dominance of the landed nobility politically and even to a certain extent economically. The revolutionary masses were betrayed when the bourgeoisies essentially turned their backs on the revolutions and made alliances with the aristocracy against the working and artisan masses in revolt. What also became clear was that the proletariat was still too weak to vie for power in an immediate sense. It was the experience of the betrayals of the bourgeoisie in the 1848 revolutions that led Marx to emphasize the necessity of organizing the proletariat in a party independent of all other classes. This was elucidated in an 1850 speech where he said:

“Our task [is] to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, the proletariat has conquered state power, and the association of proletarians, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians in these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians. For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but the abolition of classes, not the improvement of the existing society but the foundation of a new one.”

The 1848 revolutions were defeated by a series of betrayals as well as military defeats by stronger forces of reaction. And throughout, one thing became clear: the power that stood behind the most reactionary forces elsewhere in Europe—itself the most reactionary power in Europe—was Russia.

Russia was hated and feared by all progressive forces in Europe. It was one of the last places where outright feudalism still thrived, where the peasants were still chained in serfdom and where there was no independent bourgeoisie to compete with the tsarist monarchy. And it was a very strong power that also had allies in Europe. In 1848, Marx and Engels genuinely believed that the downfall of Russia would open the floodgates for revolutionary forces throughout the continent, because it would remove the most substantial obstacle to revolution—a strong state defending an outmoded system of production. So they favored any war waged by any European power against Russia.

The National Question

Now, there is another point that plays a strong role in Marx and Engels’ attitude to war around 1848, and that’s the national question. One of the great gains of the bourgeois revolutions, like the French, was the consolidation of the nation-state on the basis of bourgeois rule. This was progressive in relation to feudalism. It meant the breaking down of provincial barriers—i.e., whether someone’s from Normandy or another French province, everyone becomes a citizen of France. The creation of a single nation-state meant the consolidation of a single currency and of a capitalist system of production, which meant the greater development of industry and, in turn, the growth of the working class, which at the time was still in its infancy. One country meant one working class and a single official language—i.e., the tearing down of barriers within that nation-state dividing the proletariat. The abolition of serfdom meant the downfall of the feudal lord and the freeing up of the peasant population to become workers. All this meant that small populations within the boundaries of greater powers, or even outside them—small peoples, as Marx and Engels called them—should be assimilated, i.e., Marx and Engels generally opposed the right of national self-determination for “small peoples.”

To give you a sense of what this meant, you can look at where these two questions—Russia as the center of all evil in Europe and the national question—intersected with war: the question of pan-Slavism. The South Slavs, generally the people who occupy the Balkans today, were “small peoples.” Much like their Slavic cousins in Russia, they were ruled by feudal reaction, and much like in Russia at the time, Marx and Engels did not believe there was any internal base there to fight for democratic revolutions. And it’s not just that they resembled Russia, but they were backed to the hilt by Russia, and any ally of Russia, according to Marx and Engels, did not deserve the least bit of sympathy. In fact, it was Russian-backed Slavic forces that militarily suppressed the 1848-49 uprisings in Vienna, Austria. So, as little peoples who are allies of the greatest force for reaction, they should have no rights of self-determination and, according to Marx and Engels, should in fact be assimilated. Here are a few lines from an 1849 article by Engels, written after Slavic forces moved in and crushed the Viennese rebellion:

“There is no country in Europe which does not have in some corner or other one or several ruined fragments of peoples, the remnant of a former population that was suppressed and held in bondage by the nation which later became the main vehicle of historical development. These relics of a nation mercilessly trampled under foot in the course of history, as Hegel says, these residual fragments of peoples always become fanatical standard-bearers of counter-revolution and remain so until their complete extirpation or loss of their national character, just as their whole existence in general is itself a protest against a great historical revolution....

“Such, in Austria, are the pan-Slavist Southern Slavs, who are nothing but the residual fragment of peoples, resulting from an extremely confused thousand years of development....

“The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.”

The Magyar Struggle, January 1849 [emphasis in original]

Engels and Marx would later substantially soften their position on the South Slavs, also recognizing the internal contradictions that were being played out in Russia. And it wasn’t long after 1848 that they would develop a very different attitude toward colonialism, expressed, for example, by their impassioned and powerful defense of the Sepoy rebellion in British-occupied India in the late 1850s. On the national question, by the late 1860s Marx and Engels called for the independence of Ireland from English rule, explaining the importance this held not only for Irish but also English workers. In 1870, Marx wrote that the antagonism between Irish and English workers was “the secret of the impotence of the English working class.... It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power.”

But what must be understood is that at the time of the 1848 revolutions and wars, Marx and Engels viewed the proletariat as a class still in its infancy. They saw that the class contradictions between bourgeois and worker in Europe, while emerging, were still partial, and that therefore the key task for the European continent was the full development of capitalist relations in order to facilitate the full development of the proletariat. Hence their outlook was colored by a view of progressive and reactionary nations—progressive being those that facilitated the growth of capitalist development and reactionary being those that hindered it, Russia prime among the latter. The only Slavic nationalist movement that Marx and Engels supported was the Polish one, because Poland was occupied and oppressed by Russia.

The Franco-Prussian War

If you jump ahead a little over 20 years, it is interesting to look at what changed and what didn’t for Marx, as well as in terms of economic developments in Europe. In 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out. Germany was not a unified nation, and its unification was a major goal of the Marxists for the reasons I outlined earlier. Through a series of wars, particularly one in 1866, what became clear was that the Prussian leader Bismarck was to make Prussia the dominant region of a unified Germany and himself the dominant leader. The prospect of revolution uniting Germany was bleak. Bismarck was carrying out unification, except it was under the jackboot of Prussian militarism, through a series of wars.

The final one of these wars, and the most decisive, was between Prussia and France, then under the rule of Emperor Napoleon III, who gained power in 1851 after the defeat of the French 1848 Revolution. Bonaparte was determined that Germany not unify, as it would become a major competitor with French power, so he declared war on Prussia. What was Marx’s position on this pivotal war?

Marx’s The Civil War in France presents his views on this war as well as on the Paris Commune of 1871, which was the first time the working class had any experience with political power, though it was only in the city of Paris and lasted less than three months. Marx considered the Franco-Prussian War predatory on the side of France. “On the German side,” he wrote, “the war is a war of defence,” i.e., Marxists had a side in this war, but only as long as it remained defensive, because its victory meant German unification. The war did not remain defensive, and Marx had no illusions that it would. The Prussians won, Bismarck united Germany, and he then proceeded to advance into France and take over the region of Alsace-Lorraine. And at that point, Marx’s attitude toward the war changed, especially with the outbreak of the workers rebellion in Paris. For our purposes, though, what I want to look at is the conduct of the Marxists in relation to the war, particularly in the early phase, when it was defensive.

In 1870, the North German Parliament (or Reichstag), which was controlled by Prussia, took a vote on war credits. The two main Marxist representatives there were Wilhelm Liebknecht (the revolutionary Karl Liebknecht’s father) and German socialist leader August Bebel. Wilhelm Liebknecht was determined to vote no on the war credits because of genuine opposition to German imperial designs as well as less savory reasons. Liebknecht came from southern Germany, which was extremely resentful of Prussian power. Marx and Engels repeatedly took him to task for trying to form alliances with reactionary South German forces against the Prussians. Apparently, Bebel had a screaming fight with Liebknecht and they compromised and abstained on the vote for war credits.

This vote is important. Both Luxemburg and Lenin turned to it in the course of World War I to make the point that even in a war where the Marxists had a side, we did not vote for war credits, i.e., we did not place confidence in the bourgeoisie to carry out a defensive war and keep it defensive. After the vote, Liebknecht apparently went back to his job as co-editor of a socialist newspaper, and there were several fights with him on the editorial board because he did not want to concede any support for the war on the Prussian side. Finally, the ed board appealed to Marx directly and Marx asked Engels for his opinion.

When you look at the original documents and letters on this debate, what comes across is a furious argument with Liebknecht over the propaganda he was putting out in the course of the war, which had an abstentionist and neutral quality. Here is a quote from an August 1870 letter to Marx that explains how Engels viewed the question and why he and Marx supported the war:

“The case seems to me to be as follows: Germany has been driven by Badinguet [Napoleon III] into a war for her national existence. If Badinguet defeats her, Bonapartism will be strengthened for years and Germany broken for years, perhaps for generations. In that event there can be no question any more of an independent German working-class movement either; the struggle to restore Germany’s national existence will absorb everything, and at best the German workers will be dragged in the wake of the French. If Germany wins, French Bonapartism will at any rate be smashed, the endless row about the establishment of German unity will at last be over, the German workers will be able to organise on a national scale quite different from that prevailing hitherto, and the French workers, whatever sort of government may succeed this one, are certain to have a freer field than under Bonapartism. The whole mass of the German people of every class have realised that this is first and foremost a question of national existence and have therefore at once flung themselves into the fray. That in these circumstances a German political party should preach total abstention à la Wilhelm and place all sorts of secondary considerations before the main one, seems to me impossible.”

Engels goes on to emphasize a six-point program for the propaganda of the party:

“1) join the national movement...insofar and for so long as it is limited to the defence of Germany....
“2) at the same time emphasise the difference between German national and dynastic-Prussian interests;
“3) oppose any ANNEXATION of Alsace and Lorraine....
“4) as soon as a non-chauvinistic republican government is at the helm in Paris, work for an honourable peace with it;
“5) constantly stress the unity of interests between the German and French workers, who did not approve of the war and are also not making war on each other;
“6) Russia, as in the Address of the International.”

What this last one meant was that if Russia tried to interfere in the war, Germany should declare war on Russia.

The question of the vote on war credits by Liebknecht and Bebel is interesting. I could find nothing from either Marx or Engels that ever refers to the vote. In a sense, they did not care much how the Marxists in parliament voted on the question. It certainly was not an issue of principle. The German workers movement at that time was divided into two wings, one led by those who claimed adherence to Marxism and the other led by followers of Ferdinand Lassalle, who had died in 1864. Since 1866, the Lassalleans had consistently voted for war credits in favor of the Prussians. To my knowledge, while Marx and Engels polemicized against the Lassalleans’ overt allegiance to Bismarck, they never took on the question of war credits. When the Lassalleans and the followers of Marx unified at the Gotha Congress in the mid 1870s, forming what would later become the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), Marx issued his scathing critique of the Gotha program. That document, while ripping apart much of what appeared in the unification program, never addressed the question of war credits and in the end supported the unity of the German workers movement.

Imperialism and Opportunism

During the period between the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and the beginning of World War I in 1914, the nature of capitalist development and hence the nature of the workers movement had changed qualitatively—in ways that have fundamentally determined our attitude toward war ever since. This period was known as the period of general peace in Europe. But this peace in Europe stood in sharp contrast to the many reactionary colonial wars carried out by the European powers in Asia and Africa for the formation of colonies. An extremely significant step took place in this period, which was the development of imperialism, a system of modern, decaying capitalism. In this stage the nation-state had become a barrier to further progressive economic and productive development. To continue to compete on the international scale, the capitalists had to occupy and exploit colonies and spheres of economic influence, exporting finance capital. The first country to go imperialist was Britain, the last, right before the turn of the century, were Germany, the U.S. and Japan. The rise of imperialism had significant effects both on the workers movement and the nature of war in Europe and around the world.

In the early social-democratic movement, including its revolutionary Marxist wing, the source of opportunism was consistently defined as coming from outside the workers movement. Opportunist tendencies, it was argued, were a survival of petty-bourgeois democracy carried mainly by the intelligentsia and conditioned by the economic and ideological backwardness or immaturity of the working masses. This definition of opportunism derived from the history of the European left in the decades following the 1848 revolutions. The principal tendencies opposed to Marxism—Lassalleanism, for example—were not political representatives of the organic movement of the industrial working class. Rather, they represented the European artisan classes and their struggle against being thrown into the industrial proletariat.

It was understood that Marxism superseded such tendencies through the transformation of the urban artisan classes into a modern proletariat; hence, the struggles by Marx and Engels for national unification and the full development of capitalist relations where they were retarded. By the turn of the century, this definition of opportunism played very much into solidifying the conception of the party of the whole class—that a workers party should encompass every political tendency in the workers movement. It was argued that since opportunism came from outside the workers movement, the growth of the proletariat and of its organization would eventually strengthen the revolutionary tendencies in Social Democracy. Here is a quote from SPD leader Karl Kautsky’s 1909 The Road to Power, which tried to explain the weakness of revolutionary Social Democracy by pointing to the backwardness of the proletariat, which, Kautsky argued, reflected either a continued identification with the petty bourgeoisie or a lack of confidence in the strength of the workers movement:

“To a large degree hatched out of the small capitalist and small farmer class, many proletarians long carry the shells of these classes about with them. They do not feel themselves proletarians, but as would-be property owners.... Others, again, have gone further, and have come to recognize the necessity of fighting the capitalists that stand in antagonism to them, but do not feel themselves secure enough and strong enough to declare war on the entire capitalist system. These look to capitalist parties and governments for relief.”

In other words, it is entirely a question of ideology.

With the partial exception of Rosa Luxemburg, every revolutionary Social Democrat accepted this definition of the source of opportunism, including Lenin. For example, until the beginning of the First World War, Lenin generally characterized the Russian Mensheviks as a petty-bourgeois intellectual tendency outside the workers movement. When asked to justify the formal split in 1912 between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, Lenin argued that the bulk of the class-conscious workers movement in Russia rallied to the side of the Bolsheviks, while the Mensheviks’ base consisted largely of intellectuals. This argument had its limits, though. Empirically, at the time of the split, it may have been true, but the view that the Mensheviks were outside the workers movement was impressionistic. The wave of patriotism that swept Russia with the outbreak of World War I, including among workers, served to increase the proletarian base of the opportunist Mensheviks at the expense of the Bolsheviks, who had a revolutionary defeatist line. So, by the time of the February Revolution of 1917, the Mensheviks were far stronger in relation to the Leninists than they had been in 1912.

In some of his writings, Lenin began to recognize the inadequate nature of this theory of opportunism. For example, in an April 1914 polemic against Leon Trotsky titled “Unity,” he anticipates a split in principle with opportunists in the workers movement, writing:

“There can be no unity, federal or other, with liberal-labor politicians, with disrupters of the working-class movement, with those who defy the will of the majority. There can and must be unity among all consistent Marxists, among all those who stand for the entire Marxist body and the uncurtailed slogans, independently of the liquidators and apart from them.

“Unity is a great thing and a great slogan. But what the workers’ cause needs is the unity of Marxists, not unity between Marxists, and opponents and distorters of Marxism.”

But it was only with the outbreak of the First World War that the nature of opportunism became more widely clear. Opportunism was in fact not something that emerged outside the workers movement but was a component of the workers movement. It was not merely a question of ideology but of the material interests of the labor bureaucracy. The bourgeoisie was able to buy off the bulk of the labor bureaucracy, what American Marxist Daniel De Leon called the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class”—as well as a tiny minority of the working class, the labor aristocracy—through the spoils of imperialist plunder.

We often make the point that the AFL-CIO officialdom views the world through the same lens as the capitalist rulers. This is not simply ideological, but has its roots in the fact that for these labor tops to retain their privileged position atop the labor movement, they not only need the maintenance of capitalism but also benefit from the dominance of their own imperialist bourgeoisie.

The first writings to deal with the relationship between imperialism and opportunism were Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (written in early 1916), his article “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” (October 1916), and The War and the Crisis of Socialism (August 1916) by Bolshevik leader Gregory Zinoviev. In his book, Zinoviev addressed the question of opportunism in relation to the German Social Democracy:

“When we speak of the ‘treachery of the leaders’ we do not say by this that it was a deep-laid plot, that it was a consciously perpetrated sell-out of the workers’ interests. Far from it. But consciousness is conditioned by existence, not vice versa. The entire social essence of this caste of labor bureaucrats led inevitably, through the outmoded pace set for the movement in the ‘peaceful’ pre-war period, to complete bourgeoisification of their ‘consciousness.’ The entire social position into which this numerically strong caste of leaders had climbed over the backs of the working class made them a social group which objectively must be regarded as an agency of the imperialist bourgeoisie.”

The German SPD’s 4 August 1914 vote for war credits was not some error that could be repaired, as Kautsky claimed, but the full flowering of the development of Social Democracy over the previous couple of decades. Hugo Haase, the SPD national chairman, declared after the vote, “In its hour of peril we shall not abandon the Fatherland.” The German Kaiser, gratified, replied: “I no longer know parties, I know only Germans.” Thus the national unity drive between the long-growing opportunist wing of the Social Democracy and the German rulers was sealed, and it took the whole party with it. Lenin was absolutely right about the necessity to shatter any alliances with the social-chauvinists. The fact that he fought to break revolutionary workers in Russia from opportunism in all its forms laid the basis for the building of a vanguard party, which has proved to be the absolutely necessary and too often missing component of the struggle for workers power. If not for that, there would have been no Russian Revolution (see the Spartacist pamphlet, Lenin and the Vanguard Party).

The First World War

Now, on the question of the changes in the nature of war itself, it’s interesting to note Lenin’s comments on Luxemburg’s 1916 antiwar pamphlet written under the pseudonym of Junius. There were several lines of criticism. One was over a statement in the piece that strongly implied that national wars of liberation were no longer possible under imperialism. This question has been dealt with already in the discussions on revolutionary defensism (see Part One of this article in Workers Vanguard No. 795, 17 January). Another major criticism, though, is that in the pamphlet, Luxemburg speaks of defense of the fatherland against invasion, how the right wing of the Social Democracy actually undermined this and left the fatherland unprotected. She wrote that socialists should:

“oppose the imperialist war programme... with the old, truly national programme of the patriots and democrats of 1848, the programme of Marx, Engels and Lassalle—the slogan of a united, Great German Republic.... Hence, the grave dilemma—the interests of the fatherland or the international solidarity of the proletariat—the tragic conflict which prompted our parliamentarians to side, ‘with a heavy heart,’ with the imperialist war, is purely imaginary, it is a bourgeois nationalist fiction. On the contrary, there is complete harmony between the interests of the country and the class interests of the proletarian International, both in time of war and in time of peace; both war and peace demand the most energetic development of the class struggle, the most determined fight for the Social-Democratic programme.”

Lenin makes the point that the author of the text is clearly a revolutionary, but that approaching the question in that way leaves room for opportunists to maneuver. He explains that “in saying that the class struggle is the best means of defence against invasion, Junius applies Marxist dialectics only half way.... Civil war against the bourgeoisie is also a form of class struggle, and only this form of class struggle would have saved Europe (the whole of Europe, not only one country) from the peril of invasion.”

In the Junius Pamphlet, Luxemburg broke only partially from the old social-democratic approach to war and national defense. She harks back to 1848, when national unification and national-democratic struggle against feudal reaction, both internally and externally, were on the order of the day. The SPD right wing, in justifying their vote for war credits, cynically pointed to how Marx and Engels would have in 1848 supported Germany in a war against Russia. In turn, Luxemburg inverted the argument by giving as the theoretical basis for her opposition to the war the outmoded program of 1848 —i.e., before the development of imperialism. But as Lenin pointed out:

“At the present time, the objective situation in the biggest advanced states of Europe is different. Progress, if we leave out for the moment the possibility of temporary steps backward, can be made only in the direction of socialist society, only in the direction of the socialist revolution. From the standpoint of progress, from the standpoint of the progressive class, the imperialist bourgeois war, the war of highly developed capitalism, can, objectively, be opposed only with a war against the bourgeoisie, i.e., primarily civil war for power between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie....

“Junius came very close to the correct solution of the problem and to the correct slogan: civil war against the bourgeoisie for socialism; but, as if afraid to speak the whole truth, he turned back, to the fantasy of a ‘national war’ in 1914, 1915 and 1916.”

How classical Social Democracy regarded defensive and predatory wars is quite different from how we look at the question. In Karl Liebknecht’s 1907 book titled Militarism and Anti-Militarism, for example, the way he defines the nature of a war is over who fired first. For example, if France and Germany go to war and France initiates it, it would be defensive on the part of Germany and predatory on the part of France. The problem is, you see, the whole nature of war had changed. The compulsion for interimperialist war is not so that France and Germany could annex part of each other’s countries. If it were, then one could speak of the defense of Germany against tsarist aggression even in the context of World War I. But it wasn’t. Wars between imperialist powers are to divide and re-divide imperialist spheres of influence, to fight over who will dominate the colonial and semicolonial countries. In the process, Germany would attack France and vice versa, but the nature of the war is predatory and reactionary on both sides.

And it is this understanding of imperialism and war that has guided genuine Marxists since World War I. But there are important differences today. Most of the peoples in the dependent world are not now subject to direct colonial rule but to imperialist economic domination through the agency of local bourgeoisies. The collapse of the Soviet degenerated workers state in 1991-92, in removing a common enemy and point of unity for the imperialists, has meant a resurgence in rivalries between the imperialists similar to the pre-1914 days. But unlike that time, when you had a number of relatively equal Great Powers, today there is a sole superpower.

That situation cannot continue forever, but it does define how the American rulers act, how their imperialist rivals act and how antiwar activists, particularly in Europe, may view their relations with their rulers. For example, the sentiment of pacifism among the working population in a country like Germany, which has lost two world wars, is understandable. Likewise, there is the sense that antiwar activity must centrally be mobilized against American imperialism, since it is American imperialism that is waging most of the wars out there.

We solidarize with those who protest the crimes of U.S. imperialism. But we also warn against any illusions that German imperialism could be a lesser evil than American imperialism. That German imperialism is itself not waging a large scale war against the peoples of the world is largely a product of its military inferiority in contrast to the U.S. Any rectification of this imbalance will necessarily be accompanied by increased austerity and militarization at home, that is, at the expense of the working masses. There is therefore a direct link between opposition to imperialist plunder—plunder carried out by another imperialist power—and defense of working-class interests in a country like Germany.

Revolutionary Work in the Army

Friedrich Engels’ introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850 has an extraordinary clause that the right-wing socialists latched onto around the turn of the last century. After talking about the importance of universal suffrage, about how the bourgeoisie came to fear the legal electoral work of the party more than its illegal work, he concludes: “Rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades, which decided the issue everywhere up to 1848, had become largely outdated. Let us have no illusions about it: a real victory of insurrection over the military in street fighting, a victory as between two armies, is one of the rarest exceptions.” When this was published in the SPD’s theoretical journal in 1895, it caused a stir. The right wing interpreted it as Engels saying that violent revolution was impossible, at least in Germany, that what was left was legal parliamentary work. However, when the SPD published the article, they removed its revolutionary content—just edited it out. Engels wrote them a furious letter stating that they made him look like a “good democrat.” But that, too, was kept secret.

In fact, Engels makes the point that in the classic time of street fighting, “the barricade produced more of a moral than a material effect. It was a means of shaking the steadfastness of the military. If it held out until this was attained, victory was won; if not, the outcome was defeat. This is the main point which must be kept in view, also when examining the outlook for possible future street fighting.” In publishing the article, Bebel and Kautsky took out that last sentence about future street fighting. Connected with this, later in the article Engels makes what may appear to be a cryptic point: that the ancient Roman Empire, in its decay and as it was persecuting Christians, had within its army a growing number of Christians who were extremely useful when they gained power. I.e., having supporters of your program in the military can be very beneficial.

Not knowing about the missing parts of the article, which only got published after the Russian Revolution, in 1907 Karl Liebknecht published Militarism and Anti-Militarism. Engels’ point was that because of technology and organization, the capitalist armies had grown far too large and powerful to be defeated in street battle. Liebknecht’s point was that because of technology and organization, more than ever the capitalist armies rely heavily on the working class for their cannon fodder. These are workers in military uniform, who can be influenced by revolutionary propaganda. The army must be split by winning its proletarian base to the fight for socialism through revolutionary work in the military. And in fact, that’s exactly what the Bolsheviks did. There was already mass disaffection in the Russian army, with huge numbers of soldiers deserting by the beginning of 1917. And, it should be noted, Liebknecht’s slogan—“the main enemy is at home”—was not initially directed at the workers, but at the soldiers on the front—i.e., turn your guns the other way and go back and join the working class in fighting your main enemy.

The American army today is not a draft army. But it’s a unique volunteer army. The U.S. is the most powerful state in the world, and therefore must maintain a strong and large military. And the numbers come from working-class and minority youth. They do this through what we call an economic draft—inducing poor and working-class kids to join the military in return for financial, educational and employment benefits. So, in its composition, the U.S. Army more resembles a draft army than a volunteer one. Marxists are not bloodthirsty fiends who savor the idea of American working-class youth getting killed. Any such deaths are the direct responsibility of the bourgeoisie. But we also stand for the military defeat of U.S. imperialism and understand that such defeats can have profound effects not only on soldiers but also on society at large. As the experience of the Vietnam War shows, the casualties and the hatred for the war among many of the troops resulted in a major meltdown in the American military. The Vietnamese fighters understood this, and issued propaganda especially to black enlisted men such as the following: “U.S. Negro Armymen! You are committing the same ignominious crimes in South Vietnam that the KKK clique is perpetrating against your family at home.”

The opening pages of the Junius Pamphlet powerfully capture the scenes on German streets during World War I, once jubilant with patriotic fervor but now depressed with the heavy weight of countless corpses:

“The show is over. The German sages, the vacillating spirits, have long since taken their leave. No more do trains filled with reservists pull out amid the joyous cries of enthusiastic maidens. We no longer see their laughing faces, smiling cheerily at the people from the train windows. They trot through the streets quietly, with their sacks on their shoulders. And the public, with a disturbed face, goes about its daily tasks.

“In the sober atmosphere of pale daylight there rings out a different chorus: the hoarse croak of the vultures and hyenas of the battlefield.... The patriotic cannon fodder that was loaded into the trains in August and September rots on the battlefields of Belgium and the Vosges, while profits are springing like weeds into the fields of the dead. The harvest must be brought quickly from the barns. From across the ocean a thousand greedy hands want to take part in the plunder.”

It was Lenin’s Bolshevik Party that understood how to take the justified desire for peace among Russia’s working masses and turn it into a struggle for social revolution and working-class power. And in our work on war, we really invent nothing new. We study and learn the lessons of the past in order to be able to intervene into the struggles of today. We know that the mightiest empires can fall, that this terribly arrogant ruling class with its absurd designs of world domination also sits atop a volcano waiting to erupt, that will one day erupt against the exploitation and oppression the mass of the population daily lives through. Our struggle as a fighting propaganda group is to intervene into every situation armed with the revolutionary program of Marxism in order to win over the cadre that can assemble a workers party to sweep away the capitalist system.

Since the destruction of the USSR, the U.S. has grown dizzy with one military success after another, and the current displays of imperialist arrogance are a distillation of that unprecedented string of victories. War is an inevitable part of capitalist imperialism. And if this system remains in place, whatever slaughter may take place in Iraq will soon be overshadowed by the prospect of war between the real powers, including with nuclear weapons. This underlines both the urgency and seriousness of the tasks faced by Marxists—that truly, now more than ever, humanity is faced with the prospect of either socialist liberation or imperialist barbarism.

Letter: On the American Civil War and the Taiping Rebellion

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 800, 28 March 2003

4 February 2003

Dear Comrades,

I wish to make a correction to the otherwise excellent article, "Marxism, War and the Fight for Socialist Revolution," (Part One, January 17, 2003). America's Civil War was not "the bloodiest conflict of the 19th century." The Taiping Rebellion in China, which began in 1850 and ended in 1865, took a toll of twenty million lives, making it the costliest conflict in human history until the imperialist slaughter of World War I. (See Jonathan Spence, God's Chinese Son.)

The distinction between the two conflicts goes beyond historical body counts. Marx wrote some perceptive articles (did he write any other kind?) for the New York Daily Tribune on the Rebellion, pointing out that no matter how violent, the uprising against the Imperial government had to take the form of a messianic peasant revolt, and therefore was doomed to fail. China's bourgeoisie, on the other hand, was too weak, and unwilling—being a servant of British imperialism—to overthrow the Empire. At the same time, Marx considered the concurrent U.S. Civil War "The Second American Revolution," a bourgeois revolution against the Southern slavocracy. An unfinished revolution, as WV has always pointed out, but one that demonstrated American capitalism could still play a progressive role.

Best regards,

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