The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, February 02, 2004


Empires and the Modern Prince

The delegates brandish their weapons.

(Note, possibly apocryphal, from the record of the Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East)

Norman Geras wonders about the socialist or Marxist antiwar left:
[...] a very large segment of the political constituency I'm talking about not only opposed the Iraq war, but also opposed the intervention in Afghanistan before that, and in Kosovo before that, and so on back to the first Gulf War that evicted Saddam's armies from Kuwait. [...] America, as foremost representative of global capitalism, on one side, and (speaking loosely) regimes and movements of an utterly ghastly kind politically, on the other - those are two common poles throughout. [...] Why does this particular thematic combination lead so many to come down each time on the side they do - morally and politically, in my own view, the wrong side?

I'm sure the question is rhetorical, but if he does find it something of a puzzle, I'm surprised at his surprise. Most of the groups he refers to hark back to Lenin, and whether they do so via Trotsky or via Stalin, one of their most basic positions is that in any conflict between an advanced capitalist country (an imperialist country, as Lenin would have it) and a backward country (a colonial, semi-colonial, or dependent country, as Lenin would have it) they will back the backward country regardless of the nature of its regime. This position is a consequence of Lenin's theory of imperialism. If imperialism is what that theory says it is - a monstrous octopus choking more than half the life out of more than half the world - then (almost) anything that weakens it is in the interests of the working class and of progress, (almost) regardless of how reactionary or anti-working-class imperialism's opponent may be.

This was, ironically, why some on the British left supported the Afghan mujahedin - they regarded the Soviet Union as an imperialist power, and the muj as a national liberation movement. Beyond that they had few illusions about the muj. If you can - 'critically', of course - support the muj against the Russians, why not the Taliban (and some of the very same muj) against the Americans and their allies?

The fact is that most of the nationalist and anti-imperialist regimes or movements that most of the Marxist left has supported, or sided with, or at least not sided against, over the years have been denounced at the time as utterly ghastly politically: the 'murderous' Mau Mau, the 'fascist' EOKA, the 'Stalinist' NLF, the 'terrorist' ZANU, the 'Soviet-backed' MPLA, and so on and on and on. Even movements like the ANC that had a lot of liberal support used terrorist, or other terrible, tactics. Remember the Pretoria police station bombing? The tyres and the petrol? The Algerian FLN's cafe bombings in Battle of Algiers? The same goes for regimes and dictators. Few today would defend the Suez adventure, but at the time it was presented as a war of defence against Nasser, 'the new Hitler'. The Falklands War was supported by most of the Labour Party as an anti-fascist war of liberation, but the Marxist left almost in its entirety opposed it and, likewise almost in its entirety, sided with Argentina despite being accused of 'backing a fascist junta'.

I'm not concerned here with whether the support was correct or not. My point is that the position taken today by the Communist Party and the Trotskyists is for them nothing new. The precedents go back to the 1920s, if not before. The internationalists in the Second International supported the racist and religious Boers against the Brits, as did some liberals.

Lenin's Soviet Russia had cordial relations, as a state, with the anti-communist regime of Kemal, and with the Emir of Afghanistan. It also began to play off German imperialism against the other imperialisms, at Rapallo. Under Lenin's successors the list, as is known, lengthened considerably.

This seems cynical, but it's exactly the same approach as that of traditional diplomacy and foreign policy, recently exemplified by the Western ruling classes in the Cold War. They regarded Communism in much the same way as the Leninists regarded imperialism, and backed (almost) any regime or movement that weakened it (almost) regardless of how unpleasant that regime or movement might otherwise be. When a Vietnamese invasion overthrew the Khmer Rouge, did the US or UK governments waste a moment in weighing the morality of the intervention? They did not. They set about supporting the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, diplomatically and militarily, against Vietnam. The same considerations apply to the War on Terrorism. If Wherethefucksthatistan is boiling its Islamists alive, bully for Wherethefucksthatistan, and warm handshakes and handouts for His Excellency Whatevereyev, President for Life of Wherethefucksthatistan, a man we can do business with and our son of a bitch.

The great scandal of Lenin was that he taught realpolitik to the lower classes and backward peoples. If the working class was ever to become a ruling class it had better start thinking like one, and for a ruling class there are no rules. There is only the struggle to get and keep power. This is not to say that the Leninists and the imperialists are without moral feelings. Individually they are for the most part perfectly normal. Their compassion for their enemies' victims is absolutely genuine. So is their outrage at their enemies' moral failings and blind spots. In the 1980s I found it very difficult to regard supporters of the Chinese Communists' consistently anti-Soviet international policies as anything but scoundrels and scabs; but they were merely applying the same criteria as I was, to a different analysis of the world; and their indignation at my callous calculations and selective sympathies was just as real. I had the same sort of arguments with Trotskyists who supported the muj.

'How can you ...?' 'How can you ...?'

Morality has very little to do with choosing sides. It can tell us that a given act is dreadful, but it can't tell us whether to say, 'This is dreadful, therefore ...' or 'This is dreadful, but ...' We still often believe that we oppose our enemies because of their crimes, and support our allies despite their crimes. I wouldn't be surprised if Margaret Thatcher was quite sincere in condemning ZAPU as a terrorist organization because it shot down a civilian airliner, and in supporting one of the mujahedin factions, despite the fact that it had deliberately blown up a civilian airliner. Sometimes our moral justifications can blunt our moral sense. Think of the incendiary bombings of Germany and Japan. Suppose they were a military necessity. If so, better to accept that what 'our side' is doing is wrong and do it anyway than to persuade ourselves it is right because it is in a just cause.

(The writings of a great amoralist - a de Sade, a Stirner, a Nietzsche - can inspire a handful of murders in two centuries. Over the same period, the writings of a great moral philosopher - an Aquinas, a Kant, a Bentham, a Mill - can justify, if not indeed incite, the deaths of millions in just wars and just revolutions. Morality is an immensely dangerous and destructive force, which must be restrained by the strongest human passions and sympathies if it is not to break all the bonds of society.)

Morality is real. Morality is ideology. It is the heat given off by the workings of quite different machinery. In measuring the heat while ignoring the mechanism - in making a moral case for or against a particular war, for example - the moral philosopher reasons 'consciously indeed, but with a false consciousness'. The screams of those caught in the machinery continue unabated. They cry to heaven. It is only in what Locke called the 'appeal to heaven' - the clash of arms - that anyone (apart from, of course, 'pacifists, Quakers and other bourgeois fools' as someone said, who indulge in 'pacifist-Quaker-vegetarian prattle about the sanctity of human life', as someone else said) sees a hope that some day the machinery can be made to stop, and the screams to cease. That hope itself is the machines' fuel.

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