Issue 273 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
Nothing natural about war
William Halpern asserts that 'human nature' needs 'to be considered alongside the purely political and economic issues 'to get closer to the truth about the nature of war' (Letters, March SR).
Like other arguments from human nature, this presupposes that some trait, say the ability to learn a human language, or violence, is genetically hardwired into the human organism--that it is part of what it means to be human to manifest the trait. This is a very strong claim. A single counterexample--a society whose institutions do not express or promote greed or violence--means that we have to scrap or modify the assumption and reconstruct any arguments that rest on it. 'The exception proves (ie tests) the rule.'
Human societies that do not express or promote greed or violence are widely documented. I can attest first hand to one from my fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. The 'bold claim' that warlikeness is not inherent in human beings is borne out.
Similarly, human history is replete with examples ofeultures that have come into contact without conflict. Each and every individual example is decisive counterevidence to the claim that the 'dashing ofcultures' is inevitable. That 'clashes' and 'conflicts' occur under a range of 'global economic circumstances' does not constitute evidence that they occur 'irrespective of conditions'. Different situations can give rise to similar responses.
Attributing conflict to a 'dash of civilisations' leaves us at a loss to explain wars waged within the same culture and why clashing cultures are ever at peace. lf we seek to 'get closer to the truth about the nature of war', we really need to mason more carefully, with due respect for empirical evidence.
More importantly, if we aim to end the scourge of war, we need to understand whose interests it serves. It certainly does not serve the interests of most of those human beings who do the actual lighting, or in areas of conflict, or whose taxes pay the bills at the expense official services, or those caught up in a frenzy of xenophobic hysteria. The shameless surge in share markets around the world since the US started raining bombs onto Iraq shows who benefits from war.
I joined the protest outside parliament on the night of 18 Much 2003 when our leaders decided to help the US butcher innocent Iraqi civilians. Watching the charade unfold was sickening. Parliamentarians agreed to state murder and then congratulated themselves on the 'high level' of their debate. Blair won his vote by relying on the support of the Tories, and by arm-twisting spineless and unprincipled labour backbenchers. The antics of Clare Short alone showed how low New labour has sunk
Revolutionaries have repeatedly argued how limited the 'democracy' which capitalist society offers is. This was a textbook example of those limits described by Alex Callinicos (March SR). Though poll after poll has shown that the overwhelming majority of the population of this country did not want war, parliament took us down that road.
Marxists are often portrayed as 'antidemocratic'. The truth is we want more democracy. We want a state where every decision--economic and social as well as political--is made by the masses, where we have representatives that carry out the wishes of those they represent on the pain of instant dismissal. It is a level of democracy that capitalism can neither grant nor tolerate.
The Russian revolutionary leader Lenin argued, 'Bourgeois democracy, although a great historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical, a paradise for the rich and a snare and deception for the exploited, for the poor.'
Many people are disgusted with the way Blair has thrown us into war. Blair will pay the political price for this. But the argument must go beyond Blair and his cronies. It is the system itself which is corrupt and corrupts. Parliament is a machine made to serve capitalism. It purports to control the state and nation but in reality it is a small part of a capitalist machine, the vast part of which ordinary people have no control over.
Outside parliament the seeds of a different society were present in the anti-war demonstrations. Capitalist democracy is almost a contradiction in terms. It's time to build a world where we have real control over our lives and our society.
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Huw Williams (March SR) correctly identifies the scale of the crisis facing the Labour Party. Here in Scotland the Labour Party managed to defeat an anti-war amendment put by rebel labour MSP John McAfflon by just 5 votes at the Scottish Parliament. After the vote health minister Malcolm Chisholm made clear he only voted against it due to loyalty to the Labour Party, but is now prepared to publicly speak on anti-war platforms.
The extent of the crisis is also indicated by Labour CLPs' open acknowledgement that they are having difficulty finding enough candidates for the local council elections, and face a potential meltdown vote across Scotland in the forthcoming council and Scottish Parliamentary elections on 1May. At the same time the popularity of the Scottish Socialist Party has never been higher. Recent polls indicate the SSP's support is running at 10 percent for the proportional representation vote. We could even beat the Tories.
However there are two dangers facing the left in this situation. The first is to act in a triumphalist way towards those who will work with us in building an anti-war movement, yet remain in the Labour Party. Yes, we should argue that they should leave the party of the warmonger Blair, but we can still work with those who decide to stay yet remain opposed to the war and want to organise against it.
The second danger is to assume that the left's popularity means it does not need to fight for a socialist understanding of war within the anti-war movement. Socialist politics have been crucial to building a strong and vibrant anti-war movement and are, if anything, even more important today with the war in progress.
SSP Prospective Scottish parl arnentary, candidate for north east Fife
Thanks to the many readers of Socialist Review who supported the campaign to free anti-war activists in Egypt (Letters, March SR). On 7 March, after several weeks of imprisonment and torture, 14 activists were released and have been able to return to their work in the anti-war movement.
Kernal Khalil is one of the leaders of the movement and a founder of the Socialist Centre in Cairo. He says, 'I believe it was the solidarity movement locally and internationally that won our release. When in prison I saw statements of solidarity and hear news of your activities and it made all the difference.
'I knew that we are not alone, we are not just a few thousands in Egypt--we are many millions in the whole world. We are determined to continue our struggle to stop this war. We have to learn from this small victory and take forward the struggle for democracy and for freedom of expression.'
Khalil had been abducted fron the street on his way to work in the style of the 'disappearances' organised by states in Latin America. He was taken to the headquarters of the security police--the notorious Lazoghly torture centre.
Later taken to Tora Prison, south of Cairo, he was reunited with other anti-war activists arrested earlier. They had been in continuous solitary confinement.
'I was luckier than the others,' says Khalil. 'Some had been in the prison for a month and spent days without even blankets. 'But nothing that we suffered compared to the treatment of the Islamists. Some of the Islamist prisoners we met had been in administrative detention for 15 years. Some had been without charge for seven years--even though the maximum period allowed is six months! Some had served their sentences of 15 years and still not been released. It is now our responsibility to develop a movement ofsolidarity with such people.'
The day after Khalil's release he spoke at rallies at the journalists' and lawyers' syndicates, and the following day at a demonstration against emergency laws under which all the activists had been held. He says, 'We know the times are changing and that there's a world to be won.'
Since we received this letter the Egyptian police have once again attacked anti-war protesters. For more see page 11
I enjoyed Brian Manning's tribute to Christopher Hill (March SR). What a shame that since Hill's death, the right wing press have alleged that as a member of the wartime foreign office he 'must' have been a Soviet spy. The idea that he concealed his politics is laughable. Not only was Hill a prominent, public member of the Communist Party (CP), he was also a dissident intellectual whose ideas were distrusted by the bureaucrats at the head offlis party.
Hill's 1940 book The English Revolution 1640 was denounced in the CP's magazine, Labour Monthly. Hill's main critic, Jurgen Kuczynski, was a leading member of the Comintern, who later held positions of authority in East Germany. The civil war was a class war,' Hill had written. Such clear politics was anathema to people who believed that liberty could be exported by Soviet tanks.
After a fierce row this controversy was dropped in 1941, and Hill was able to continue his membership of the CP in peace. Yet the dispute had a lasting resonance. It opened up a space for free intellectual enquiry. Several of Hill's supporters in 1940 later played a prominent part in the New Left and CND. Far from being a Soviet spy, Hill's work played a proud part in the creation of an anti-Stalinist left.
As Brian Manning's tribute demonstrates (March SR) the late Christopher Hill was a fine and pathbreaking Marxist historian, a long way from the mechanical Stalinist suggested by some.
Since Hill's death he has been the subject of a vicious witchhunt. The Times has suggested that during the Second World War Hill was a Russian spy, although the evidence for this accusation would not be enough to convince even Tony Blair. Meanwhile the right wing historian Norman Stone has suggested that Hill could not be trusted because he, apparently, dyed his hair.
But there is a problem with defending Hill's outstanding historical opus. His work came under sustained attack from revisionist historians in the 1980s and 1990s. Sometimes these attacks were merited by genuine historical research. More often they were ideological. Unfortunately Hill could only rarely be persuaded to take issue with his opponents. This seems to have left a dearth of left wing historians working in the same field as Hill.
As the convenor of the socialist history seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in central London, I am deluged with papers from research historians in a wide range of subjects. It is notable, by contrast, that very few offers come from historians working on the English Civil War. One hopes that Christopher Hill's death will spark more socialist historians to pick up the many historical questions and challenges which his work identified but did not definitively resolve.
I have a quibble with Chris Harman's otherwise excellent article, 'Left Pole of Attraction' (March SR). He concludes by saying that we need to build the 'biggest possible anti-war movement--and then argue within it for an anti-capitalist agenda that confronts the system as a whole'. Given the hysteria over asylum seekers, it strikes me that we have to begin doing both at the same time.
As Chris acknowledges, and as Julie Waterson's following piece ('Beating the Bigots') shows, the BNP are homing in on the issue in the run-up to the May council elections. Unless we get behind a campaign of exposing the lies and myths they feed on, the Nazis are poised to make significant gains.
More than anything else, it is war that creates asylum seekers. By campaigning against war, we should necessarily be campaigning for the defence of asylum seekers. The Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers has encouraged anti-war protesters to carry 'Stop the War on Asylum Seekers' placards and wear our badges. We have also pressed for anti-war activists to sign our open letter to the press condemning the racist hysteria and to help us raise the £io,ooo-plus to pay for it. Copies of the statement can be downloaded from www.defendasylum.org
The anti-war movement is the greatest the world has ever known. Let's make sure it is directed towards taking on the system that creates war, and the countless victims of war, as quickly as possible.
Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers
PO Box 4289
London WC1N 3XX