TB #2: Marxism and Bloodthirstiness
[From Workers Vanguard, No. 345, 6 January 1984]
U.S. imperialism’s trip wires for World War III extend from one end of the globe to the other. Reagan is now engaged in three wars–in Lebanon, El Salvador and Nicaragua–and in the Caribbean the U.S. troops are finishing off the rape of Grenada. American Pershing 2 nuclear missiles have been deployed in Europe, aimed directly at Moscow–at six to eight minutes striking distance. Decaying capitalism is readying to plunge humanity once again into global war, and lurching toward a nuclear holocaust which threatens the extinction of life on this planet.
Revulsion and opposition to the mass slaughter which is endemic to the imperialists’ class rule is a central part of the Marxist vision of and struggle for a classless, stateless society. The hideous threat of World War III and the bellicose policies of Washington today engender justified fears and inchoate pacifistic sentiments among the world’s masses, both in the Soviet bloc and the capitalist countries, sentiments which can be turned against the imperialist war-makers. The carnage of World War I gave birth to the Russian workers revolution of 1917–because the Bolshevik Party won the workers, peasants and soldiers to revolutionary opposition to their “own” government, and ended Russia’s participation in the inter-imperialist slaughter by replacing the exploiters’ state with a government of the working people.
When over 240 U.S. Marines were blown to pieces at the Beirut airport compound in October, the largest number of American troops killed in a single day since the height of the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the American public reacted with outrage. There were elements of pacifism, isolationism and patriotism, and there was a broad grasp that the Lebanon intervention was senseless. The outrage was mainly directed at the imperialist commander in chief (who immediately launched the racist bully-boy invasion of tiny Grenada for an easy “victory” to distract attention from the debacle in Beirut). To intersect this conjunctural anti-government sentiment evocatively, the Spartacist League raised the slogans “Marines Out of Lebanon, Now, Alive!” “U.S. Out of Grenada, Dead or Alive!” There were those among our readership who–objecting particularly to the word “alive”–denounced our Lebanon slogan as a “social-patriotic” capitulation to American chauvinism, counterposing the supposedly radical sentiment: “the only good one is a dead one.” But far from radical, this vicarious bloodthirstiness (reminiscent of some of the more dim and despicable elements of the old New Left–draft-dodgers turned accountants) challenges a fundamental attitude of Marxism as well as undercutting the central Leninist proletarian strategy to fight against imperialist war. Our critics have nonetheless served a purpose in prompting us to restate some basic Marxist truths, beginning with the fact that Marxists are not bloodthirsty.
We are for the victory of just causes. Necessarily and above all, the centrality of just causes is the shattering of the exploiting and oppressing classes and the victory of socialism. We are socialists not least because we are passionately opposed to war, the gathering together of large numbers of young workingmen to be slaughtered in the interests of the rulers. In this savagely class-divided world, dominated by the mass murderers of My Lai, the struggle for the victory of just causes will have a big physical component. We must stand therefore for the maximum assembling of effective force on the just side, hopefully to demoralize and deter the forces of reaction so that the actual casualties are minimized.
But in Lebanon at the moment, there is little evidence of justice on any side. At bottom, the present fighting there is a continuation of the centuries-old communal/sectarian conflicts between Muslims and Christians, Sunnis and Shi’ites, Druze and others. There is no known force fighting against the U.S. imperialists–they are all jockeying for position with the imperialists. Those whose cause is clearest–the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)–in fact requested the intervention of the imperialist troops (a suicidal demand supported by virtually the entire reformist left in this country, and sharply opposed of course by us revolutionists). Now the U.S. is there, having disarmed the PLO and prepared the way for the Israeli/ Phalange massacres at Sabra and Shatila. Arafat’s organization has split into bloody rivalry, dispersed and evacuated (under the UN flag and Israeli shells). The Israelis precipitously withdrew from Beirut, leaving the Americans to take the casualties. The warring Lebanese communal militias can’t tell the difference between the Americans and the Russians and couldn’t care less. Where is the just, anti-imperialist side in Lebanon today?
What about the allies of Arafat’s organization? In Tripoli where he was besieged by Syrian-backed PLO dissidents, Arafat allied with the Islamic Unity Movement of Sheikh Shaaban, which last October massacred some 50 members of the Lebanese Communist Party. What about the Shi’ites, who are at the bottom of the social scale in Lebanon, totally deprived of political power although they are the largest group in the country? Shortly before the Israeli invasion of June 1982, the Shi’ite Amal carried out murderous attacks against the PLO in Beirut and southern Lebanon. As for the Syrians, who vaunt their rejection of any negotiations with the Zionists, they made a separate ceasefire with the Israelis early in the 1982 invasion, leaving the Palestinians to fight alone.
To be sure, our Lebanon slogan was highly conjunctural; the situation in the Near East is changing rapidly. The U.S. is already drifting in the direction of a direct conflict with Syria, thanks in good part to the Reaganites’ irrational notions of “Soviet surrogateship.” Should the U.S. go to war against Syria, a complete reevaluation would be indicated, not least because such a war could become a de facto U.S./USSR conflict in which Marxists would defend the Soviet side.
Lebanon is a quagmire for U.S. imperialism–and this is a good thing. But we do not gloat over those 240 aluminum caskets, those dead young men many of whom were considered expendable in the first place because they were black. We can only despise those who call for the death of American soldiers for the crimes of their rulers. For Marxists there is all the difference between the men in the field and those who sent them there to die. We are not per se interested in the annihilation of everyone who is executing Washington’s global bloodthirsty policies. Lebanon has aroused strong opposition in the U.S. population; sending in the Marines was a stupid act which could backfire on the U.S. ruling class.
A very different situation obtains in Grenada, Reagan’s diversion from the Lebanon disaster. We viewed the U.S. invasion of Grenada in terms comparable to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon: racialist atrocities against another nationality. We had a side in 1982: the defense of the Palestinians against the attempt to wipe them out. And we had a side in Grenada: with the 700 Cuban construction workers who resisted the Yankee invaders. It took 6,000 U.S. troops to “take” Grenada in the face of the Cubans’ heroic self-defense, and most of the Cubans were over 40 years old! The same issue of Workers Vanguard which our critics believe marks our decisive capitulation to “social-patriotism” hailed the Cuban fighters who–unlike anyone in Lebanon today–fought the main enemy, U.S. imperialism. In Grenada, we had a side, and our call was “U.S. Out, Dead or Alive!”
And in Vietnam! The side of justice there was unambiguously that of the National Liberation Front (N.L.F.)/North Vietnamese forces against U.S. imperialism. At stake were the national rights of the Vietnamese people and the social revolution whose victory was the only way to definitively drive out colonialism. Our call for ”Victory to the Vietnamese Revolution!” was not bloodymindedness but a recognition of what was necessary to bring peace to Vietnam after three decades of imperialist war. In Lebanon, it is precisely the question of social revolution, or even national liberation, that is missing.
The flip side of the dimwitted New Left bloodlust exemplified by the SDS Weathermen was the Socialist Workers Party’s Vietnam slogan, “Bring Our Boys Home Now!” Tailored to appeal to liberal defeatism within sections of the bourgeoisie, the slogan was a class betrayal precisely because the international proletariat had a side in Vietnam–“our” boys were the NLF/North Vietnamese. There were two ways the Americans could come home: withdrawal or in body bags. A common thread runs through the SWP’s social-democratic slogan and the New Leftist calls for exterminating the Yankee pigs–both despair of mobilizing the proletariat to wage class struggle against imperialist war, and both renounce appealing to the ranks of the army along class lines.
Imperialism’s hemorrhaging in Vietnam and the consequences of its defeat–the profound demoralization of the U.S. armed forces, the convulsions throughout American society, the fear of “another Vietnam” which has stayed the hand of imperialism–were good things from the standpoint of the world’s toiling masses. The “Vietnam syndrome” here at home provided a breathing space for national liberation struggles such as those in the former Portuguese colonies of southern Africa, tending to prevent a direct American intervention into Angola in 1975-76. It has inhibited Reagan thus far from trying a wholesale assault with U.S. troops against the Nicaraguan regime and the Salvadoran leftist insurgents. But we do not gloat over the deaths of rank-and-file U.S. soldiers. Among the GIs and Marines who were sent to Vietnam were to be found, as the losing war dragged on, some of the angriest, most bitter and most important opponents of the government’s war. Unlike the New Left radicals who went, without blinking an eye, from counseling draftees and giving GIs flowers to glorifying their being blown to bits, we sought to do Marxist propaganda work among the American troops. We said that antiwar youth if drafted should seek to educate their class brothers in the army about the imperialist character of the war and their own interest in opposing it.
The global conflict between the antiquated imperialist order and the emancipation of the proletariat does not reduce itself to a division between “good” and “bad” peoples in battles between just and unjust causes. Marxists have a side but nevertheless do not propose as our program the extermination of all those sent to fight for the wrong side (a program which, if carried out, would long ago have done away with the proletariat of most of the Western capitalist nations). In wars where no side represents an advance for elementary justice, we stand for revolutionary defeatism on both sides. Consider, in addition to Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war. Is it “social-patriotic” to advise the Iranian and Iraqi troops not to slaughter each other for their respective regimes, to turn the guns around and go home? The squalid Falklands/Malvinas war was another such case. Neither the Argentine nor the British working masses had anything to gain from the victory of their “own” murderous rulers in the Falklands; they only stood to lose their lives. (In fact, Argentina’s defeat led straight to the downfall of the military regime; Britain’s victory led to the re-election of Margaret Thatcher.) Those who want bloodthirstiness, must look to Thatcher, who ordered the gratuitous sinking of the Argentine cruiser Belgrano, taking the lives of more than 320 young men in the icy waters of the South Atlantic.
From Verdun to Hiroshima, the imperialists wage their barbaric, cyclical wars for profit, turning entire generations into cannon fodder. Bukharin wrote about the hideous carnage of the first World War:
“The leading characteristic of the war was that it was murderous to an unparalleled degree. The levying of troops advanced with giant strides. The proletariat was positively decimated on the battlefields. The reports show that down to March, 1917, the number of dead, wounded, and missing totaled 25 millions: by 1 January 1918, the number of the killed had been approximately 8 millions. If we assume the average weight of a soldier to [be] 150 lb., this means that between 1 August 1914, and 1 January 1918, the capitalists had brought to market twelve hundred million pounds of putrid human flesh.”
– The ABC of Communism
Or as Rosa Luxemburg put it in her Junius Pamphlet (1916):
“Dividends are rising–proletarians falling; and with each one there sinks a lighter of the future, a soldier of the revolution, a savior of humanity from the yoke of capitalism, into the grave.”
An end to this slaughter is the goal of Marxist revolutionists. And we hope to put an end to the bourgeoisie’s rule with as little bloodshed as possible. We wish we could be pacifists, but we can’t–the old social order does not give way to the new in a peaceful and orderly fashion. Isaac Deutscher noted that, “In embracing the vision of a nonviolent society, Marxism … has gone further and deeper than any pacifist preachers of nonviolence have ever done. Why? Because Marxism laid bare the roots of violence in our society, which the others have not done” (“Marxism and Non-violence,” 1966).
Certainly, the Russian Revolution was a nearly bloodless event, carried out, Deutscher writes, “in such a way that, according to all the hostile eyewitnesses (such as the Western ambassadors who were then in Petrograd), the total number of victims on all sides was ten.” It was when the tsarist generals backed by 13 imperialist armies began the Civil War that the killing really began. In sheer arms, the Bolsheviks were infinitely inferior to the imperialist powers who intervened to crush the revolution along with the contras of the day, the White Army. The Bolsheviks emerged victorious; Deutscher wrote: “They agitated, they appealed to the consciousness of the soldiers, of the workers in uniform in those interventionist armies. The French navy, sent to suppress the revolution, rose in mutiny in Odessa and refused to fight against the Bolsheviks….”
While the bourgeoisie can only maintain its rule over the laboring majority through the massive use of intimidation, force and violence, for Marxists violence is a necessary evil–one imposed upon the defense of the struggle for socialism by the bloody-mindedness of the exploiting class in power. After the Cuban people defeated the ClA’s Bay of Pigs invaders, the Castro regime traded the captured gusanos for needed medical supplies. In El Salvador, the leftist insurgents have followed a policy of turning captured enemy soldiers over to the Red Cross unharmed–an effective incentive to mass desertion from the junta’s army. Contrast this with the fascistic death squads who operate against the populace under the principle of “the only good one is a dead one.” The principal weapon in the proletariat’s arsenal is not force per se, but the ability to undermine the capitalist regiments by appealing to common class interests. Even in defense of just causes, Marxists are guided by a rational calculus and not by bloodlust.
There are situations in which insufficient force used initially leads to greater bloodshed ultimately. Had the Nicaraguan Sandinistas beheaded the counterrevolutionary pro-Somocista organizations, e.g., by trials of Somoza’s torturers by revolutionary tribunals, the Nicaraguan masses today would not be forced to fight and die against the contra invaders. We raise the slogan “Kill the Invaders!” not because we want to see a lot of dead bodies lying around, but because if every little band the CIA sends over is wiped out, and the counterrevolutionary capitalist “fifth column” in Nicaragua is expropriated as a class and its power broken, bloodshed will be minimized, while conciliation strengthens the hand of the U.S.-backed contras who aim to drown in blood the possibility of socialist revolutionary development in Nicaragua.
Or consider the U.S. Korean Air Lines Flight 007 Cold War provocation against the Soviet Union last summer, a grotesque example of the ruling class’s willingness to cynically squander human life. The Soviet military took the only course of defensive action possible, under the circumstances–i.e., given the refusal of the jet to communicate, the Russians were unable to identify it while at the same time a U.S. spy plane was clearly in contact with it. But we do not “hail” the shooting down of 200-plus innocent civilians; we solidarize with the TASS statement of 2 September 1983:
“Tass is authorized to state that in the leading circles of the Soviet Union regret is expressed over the loss of human life and at the same time a resolute condemnation of those who consciously or as a result of criminal disregard have allowed the death of people and are now trying to use this occurrence for unseemly political aims.”
Marxists do not support nor advocate the killing of innocent civilians–be it on board KAL 007, an Israeli bus in Jerusalem, a pub in Northern Ireland. With KAL, the fact is that the Soviets did not knowingly down a civilian passenger jet. Had they done so, we said, it would have been worse than a barbaric atrocity, it would have been an idiocy worthy of the Israelis. This seemingly uncontentious position against wanton bloodshed provoked charges of “softness” from critics whose vicarious bloodthirstiness tends to be directly proportional to the distance from their own appetites. From a safe distance, the petty-bourgeois radicals embrace the “good” peoples (if necessary first inventing them, as in Lebanon today) and for the “bad,” well, the only good one is a dead one. Reactionary in itself, such an attitude–completely divorced as it is from Marxist class analysis–necessarily gives way to anti-communist public opinion. Thus we see many of yesterday’s “radicals” joining up ideologically with U.S. imperialism over the plight of “poor little Afghanistan” and the crushing of counterrevolutionary Polish Solidarnosc. (In Afghanistan, the “freedom fighters” are fanatical Islamic defenders of the bride price, while the “evil superpower” defends the rights of the Afghan people to emerge from the ninth century, including the right of women to learn to read. In Poland, “underdog” Lech Walesa and Solidarnosc represent the Vatican, Western bankers and the CIA in league against the Polish Stalinist bureaucracy, threatening a bloody return to capitalist “democracy,” i.e., wage slavery and NATO missiles.)
On another level, there is the conflict between the nationalist/Stalinist and the Trotskyist approaches to the anti-Nazi resistance during World War II. The policy of the French Resistance was to attack lone German privates standing out on lonely streets at night trying to pick up girls: a typical “tactic” was to cut off their genitals and stuff them in their mouths. Predictably, this didn’t lead to too many German recruits to the cause of the Resistance. The French Trotskyists sought to appeal to the class consciousness of the German soldiers (many of whose parents were Communists and Social Democrats), carrying out at great cost a policy of fraternization. Around the publication of Arbeiter und Soldat (“Worker and Soldier”), a clandestine newspaper for German class-conscious soldiers, they formed a Trotskyist secret cell within the German navy at Brest.
Today there are a half a million young men in the Bundeswehr (West German army) and, as in the past, they are likely to be sent off to fight for unjust causes. We would work for their defeat, but that does not mean that we propose the extermination of every German worker in uniform. We seek rather the bursting asunder from within, i.e., from below, of the imperialist armed forces as part of the struggle to realize comrade Lenin’s profoundly humanist view of the “socialist system of society, which, by abolishing the division of mankind into classes, by abolishing all exploitation of man by man, and of one nation by other nations, will inevitably abolish all possibility of war.”