War and The Politics of Protest

Last year's huge demonstrations against the Iraq war showed that in Britain well over a million people who opposed the war felt so strongly on the matter that they actually took part in marches and other demonstrations to indicate their opposition. But, like other mass protests, these were people with a variety of political aims and ideologies. Few, we think, would share SPGB reasons for opposing - not just this war, not just capitalist wars generally - but the capitalist system itself, the root cause of all the wars that have taken place in the last 100 years.

Among those we met on these protest demonstrations, or whose views have appeared in the press or been posted on 'radical' websites, the vast majority would have supported a war if they could have been persuaded that it was legitimate, say, if the UN had given it a figleaf of legality. Or if the commercial concerns of America's oil interests had not been so blatantly obvious as the real cause of the war.

In short, most of the protesters had in the past supported wars and in the future can be expected to support other wars. All they needed was someone to convince them that this war was legitimate - a 'just' war or one that should be supported as being in the so-called 'national interest' .

Currently, in the run-up to another US Presidential election, the Democrat Party has been rummaging around among its various hopefuls to try and find someone who can be presented as an 'anti-war' candidate. Step forward, General Wesley Clark, whose claim to be among "the most vocal anti-war candidates" was reported in September by Associated Press and the WASHINGTON POST .

Yet this heroic "anti-war" man of principle had previously held very different views. Earlier, he had said :

The credibility of the United States is on the line, and Saddam Hussein has these weapons and so, you know, we're going to go ahead and do this and the rest of the world's got to get with us...(CNN, 5 Feb.2003).

After the fall of Baghdad he wrote almost poetically:

Liberation is at hand. Liberation ... the powerful balm that justifies painful sacrifice, erases lingering doubt and reinforces bold actions ... Already the scent of victory is in the air (THE TIMES,10 April 2003).

The very next day, again in THE TIMES, he followed this with a triumphalist assertion of American dominance:

If there is a single over-riding lesson it must be this: American military power, especially when buttressed by Britain's, is virtually unchallengeable today. Take us on? Don't try! And that's not hubris, it's just plain fact.
[Source: COMMON DREAMS web site, 16 Sept. 2003]

Clearly politicians on the make will say just about anything if their inner voices or advisers tell them that this will go down well with some of the electorate. The capitalist politician of conviction is a rare bird indeed.

However these brief quotations from General Clark show that, like Bush and Blair, he was offering more than one reason for supporting the war. First, Saddam's supposed Weapons of Mass Destruction: Clark was absolutely certain these existed, relying on so-called 'intelligence' reports. But if they existed, it is odd that so far none have been found. Next, the myth of 'liberation' - when the reality is one of anarchy and looting under incompetent, often brutal, occupation forces, and the cynical farce of an appointed government. And finally, the demonstration of "unchallengeable" American military might - which, however, fails even to protect occupation troops from being booby-trapped with primitive terrorist bombs.

One word not mentioned by Clark in his excitement was the real casus belli - that little three-letter word, oil. What was it about Iraq that made it of overwhelming importance to the United States? Why did the phrase "strategic interest" come up so often in the talk in Washington of the need to rein in this "rogue state", of the need for "regime change"?

Certainly there were some people who believed in the WMD argument - and probably Tony Blair and Colin Powell had heard scary briefings from their 'intelligence' experts.

No doubt Bush's colleague, Donald Rumsfeld, will have told him of the occasions, in the 1980s, when he himself regularly visited Saddam Hussein in Baghdad to sell him the necessary tools of the trade for terrorising his own population and neighbouring states such as Iran (another 'rogue state'). Probably former Tory ministers will have reminded Blair, Straw and Hoon that in their time, in the 1980s, they too had made frequent visits to Saddam to sell him whatever Britain could offer in this line. Even after Saddam had used a chemical nasty against Kurdish villages such as Halabja, the Department of Trade and Industry was happy to increase the financial support it offered, through its Export Credit Guarantee Department schemes, to companies doing this sort of trade with Saddam.

Like Osama Bin Laden, that arch-terrorist who is still at large, Saddam Hussein had been helped to power by Uncle Sam -"he may be a son-of-a-bitch but he's our son-of-a-bitch" has always been Washington's cynical motto. Hence the US support for a number of unsavoury tin-pot dictatorships in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.

The politicians and think-tanks of 'democratic' America only come over all ethical when one of their former friends becomes unreliable and fails to back American interests. That's when the labels come out - 'rogue state' , 'pariah state' and so on. That's when the warmongers start to worry about this irresponsible dictator having at his disposal a scary arsenal of chemical and nuclear weapons.

They think we have such short memories: that no-one remembers that the only state in the world so far to have actually used a nuclear bomb against a non-nuclear state, attacking civilian targets without prior warning, is the United States. That by far the largest number of Weapons of Mass Destruction is stockpiled and constantly added to by the world's only superpower - the United States. That most of the WMD's acquired by countries in the Middle East were supplied by either the United States or by its very good friends, Britain and France. If there is a 'rogue state' in this scary world, surely the US qualifies for that description.

If the WMD argument for invading Iraq was always a pretty feeble pretext, that based on the moral high ground - that the United States and Britain are democracies, where the individual citizens have certain "inalienable rights" - has also been shown, not for the first time, to be a sham. In wartime, democracies have a way of bulldozing 'democratic rights' out of the way. The Second World War - supposedly a war to defend democracy - saw internment of civilians widely practised in Britain and the US. Britain deported many decent people of Italian or German origin, or else interned them. The American Government did the same to their Japanese citizens, dumping them behind barbed wire in the desert, with scant regard for their "inalienable rights".

Later, writing in 1968 during the Vietnam War, the independent journalist I F Stone described how, in Vietnam as in Latin America, "in the name of liberty, we supported first foreign and then native oligarchies", and recalled how in 1948 the Democrats, then in government, had anticipated McCarthy's witch hunts:

Truman instituted a loyalty purge within the government which put a premium on mediocrity and cast a pall of fear on the capital long before Joe McCarthy....Panicky Senate Democratic liberals ...[proposed]... a bill setting up detention camps in time of war or national emergency for persons suspected of being potential spies or saboteurs. This monstrosity marked the debut in American legislation of the idea that a man might be jailed not for something he did but for something it was thought he might do (I F Stone POLEMICS AND PROPHECIES, 1967-1970, pp9-10).

And in the same 1968 article, he also pointed to the growing power and dominance in American politics of the military in influencing policy:

A new President must face up to a military bureaucracy so huge that its weight in the scales of policy is almost insuperable ... We are the prisoners of this machine, which must find work commensurate with its size to justify its existence. The magnitude of the monster is indicated by the growth of the military budget from $12 billion just before the Korean war only eighteen years ago to its current $80 billion and the $102 billion recently requested of Secretary Clifford by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This is like trying to keep a dinosaur as a household pet. It will eat us out of house and home (ibid. pp18-19).

We cite these comments partly to show how the militarism of the Bush government is not at all a new phenomenon, any more than are the repressive measures brought in since September 11th 2001 - such as the Patriot Act, the internment of many Arab-Americans, not to mention the incarceration without trial of so many hapless adults and children at Guantanamo Bay. These are measures which have simply updated and brought into effect the dormant 1948 Democrat legislation.

In another 1968 article, Stone also recalled the 1958 Rockefeller Brothers Report on "International Security: The Military Aspect", which anticipated aspects of Bush's foreign and defence/war policy:

This was a blueprint for a US role as world policeman in the nuclear age...One innovation charted the course to a whole series of Vietnams...
The report invented the phrase "non-overt aggression", i.e., an aggression of which there is no proof in overt acts, only a hunch that something bad is going on....There is an occult quality about the phrase "non-overt aggression" which recalls the demonology of the cold war and the witch hunt years in their most virulent phase
"(ibid. p39).

As with Bush's so-called 'war on terrorism', this concept of 'non-overt aggression' would be a useful justification for armed intervention as in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, and probably various other countries in Bush's "axis of evil". The Pentagon hawks of today may well have studied the policy thinking in the Rockefeller Report of 1958 which declared that when "non-overt aggression presents issues which are deliberately and intrinsically unclear ... .to ask for certainty in these situations is a recipe for inaction"(ibid. p39). So, if in doubt, shoot first, ask questions afterwards.

We quote from Stone also to show the limited nature of a 'liberal' opposition. Stone, like so many others, would criticise a war if it was, in his view, not in the 'national interest'. He criticised the excessive dominance of the military establishment with its enormous budget, and argued that such money would have been better spent in tackling social problems and poverty.

Likewise now, on various radical/liberal web-sites on the Internet, one can read the anguished protests of intelligent Americans who can see what a dangerous, costly nonsense this war is and fear future adventures of this sort. Or who know that there is war-profiteering going on with Halliburton, Bechtel and the like being awarded lucrative contracts for the 'rebuilding' of Iraq, contracts which were not put out to tender and so were reserved for the privileged, corrupt cronies of the Bush magic circle. Or those who are genuinely angered at the erosion of their "inalienable rights",especially detention without trial .

But these critics of Bush's policy are not likely to argue that wars and international competition are the inevitable consequence of the capitalist system of production for profit. Nor will they be found willing to share our platfom in exposing the real cause of the Iraq war - the need the US government feels to control as much as possible of the world's oil reserves so as to safeguard the United States' future economic and military power.

The facts are well-known: while the US is the world's second-biggest oil producer after Saudi Arabia, it is also, by far and away, the world's biggest oil importer. The increased use of oil, in transport and for other uses, during the last half-century means that the amount of oil used in a whole year, worldwide, in 1950, is now got through in just 6 weeks, according to the International Energy Agency. Like all developed economies, the US economy is heavily dependent on oil - for transport, including all forms of military transport from jeeps to jets, for all the various industries and processes which use hydrocarbons as an essential raw material (e.g. petrochemicals and plastics), and for every mechanical process which requires oil as a lubricant.

Consequently, to maintain its economic dominance, the US government needs to maintain its military dominance, and to do that it absolutely has to maintain its control over the majority of the world's oil reserves - oil is and has for long been the lynchpin of American policy.

Ironically, capitalism relies even more heavily on another golden goose. That is the labour-power of the working class, worldwide. It is this unique commodity which is the real source of profits, the creator of capital for the next generation of capitalists to live off and profit from. That is some golden goose, some egg. For, unlike oil,it is this ubiquitous commodity - our labour-power, our mental and physical abilities - which when put to use is the real wealth-creating factor throughout the world. And yet, perhaps because they take it so much for granted, the capitalists never seem to go to war to get themselves more labour-power.

Even more ironically, although the working class can seldom if ever benefit from a war fought over capitalist interests, over oil wells in Iraq or pipelines in Afghanistan, it is the workers who volunteer to serve their bosses and kill one another enthusiastically in capitalist interests, provided these said commercial interests are decently draped in a colourful flag.

Thirty years before I F Stone was writing in 1968, during the Vietnam war, SPGB published a pamphlet about the looming prospect of World War Two in which, in a preface, we stated:

The phrases and arguments of government spokesmen when war becomes the object are simply aimed at deluding the workers into giving their support...

The real enemy of the world's workers is always on their doorsteps. It is the capitalist class, both at home and abroad (THE CZECH CRISIS AND THE WORKERS, 1938 - preface, pp6-8).

So while it is perhaps encouraging to know that so many people were opposing this war and criticising government arguments, in Europe and in America, we know that this type of well-meaning protest falls well short of a genuine Socialist critique of capitalism as the real cause of all modern wars. The arguments that a 'liberal' opponent of this war will put always leave space for them to support a 'just' war, a war legitimated by the figleaf of a United Nations vote, or a war that is clearly in 'self-defence', or one that can be justified as being in the so-called 'national interest'.

Socialists however declare bluntly that all capitalism's wars are always about issues of importance to the capitalist class, not to the working class. It is not the workers - whether of Iraq or the US - who will end up owning the oil wells and pipelines of Iraq. Nor will the workers of any country earn any profits from Iraq's oil production. As for 'regime change', if the US government wants to change the ruler of any country by force, they can hardly claim that this is being done for any reason other than that the previous ruler is no longer a reliable ally of Uncle Sam - it has nothing to do with ideological, propaganda claims of 'liberation' and the like. It has everything to do with real politik. In the heyday of the British Empire, Whitehall followed the same policy, and dressed it up in pompous claims about the civilising mission of the 'white man's burden'.

Most ideological and debatable of all is the argument that a war is in the 'national interest'. This concept suggests that each nation has a single interest, a shared interest at stake. Yet within each nation there are two opposing classes, the one exploiting the other, with utterly opposing interests. What shared interest is there or can there possibly be in common between those who produce but do not possess and those who possess but do not produce?

The real interest of the working class, in all countries, is to abolish the class system of wage-slavery and exploitation, a system based on competition and resulting in conflict, and its replacement by a classless, cooperative social system which will put an end to class-conflict, the waste of warfare, and the insecurity and misery of poverty. The struggle for Socialism depends on a development of revolutionary, international class-consciousness.

The politics of protest, of the medley of the Anti-War Coalition demonstrators, ranging from pacifists and pensioners, Christians and Muslims through to the Anarchist fringe and the opportunist left, sincere as these people were, indicates that class-consciousness and a clear understanding of how capitalism itself is the cause of all modern warfare has yet to develop. To protest against the effects of capitalism while continuing to support the capitalist system is illogical and inconsistent. It seems that generations of workers have said "But I object!" but have done nothing effective to get rid of that to which they object. That is why the mere politics of protest is not enough, and never can be.

Back to top

Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.