A Brief Critique of Anti-War Activism

December 7, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Re-reading Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State, and War, I was struck by a point he makes about the Second International holding two contradictory positions on war: (1) Capitalism = war, therefore ending war = abolishing capitalism; and (2) War can be prevented within the context of capitalist society by a vigorous peace movement.

I reviewed the Second International declarations on war and militarism, and, indeed, these two contradictory positions appear in each and every one of them (see table below). They all say, first, that war can be ended only by abolishing capitalism, and then go on to say, war can be ended or prevented by actions x, y, and z, neither of which involve abolishing capitalism. 

Take the 1910 Copenhagen Conference. The conference’s declaration on war and militarism notes that “Modern wars are the result of capitalism, and particularly of rivalries of the capitalist classes of the different countries over the world market.” It adds that “Wars will cease completely only with the disappearance of the capitalist mode of production.” But later on, the declaration contradicts itself when it insists that wars can be prevented if, in a crisis potentially leading to war “immediate steps” are taken “to bring about an agreement among labor parties of the countries affected for united action to prevent the threatened war.”

Quite by accident, I came across an analysis on the Ukraine war by Socialist Action Canada. Echoing Second International resolutions of over 100 years ago, it too presented the same two contradictory positions. Here’s how the analysis begins: “The unfolding tragedy can be halted by mass protest actions in every country, along with the construction of a broad, democratic anti-war movement.” It ends with a contradictory message: The only way to end war is “to eradicate the capitalist profit system by means of workers’ socialist revolution.”

So, which is it? Wars won’t end until capitalism ends? Or, wars won’t end until a broad, democratic anti-war movement organizes mass protests?  

What I found more striking about the analysis was this: Except for a brief reference to “workers and the poor, women and children” (in other words just about everyone) comprising “the first and foremost victims of war”, the analysis makes not one reference to the specifics of how the war has harmed the bulk of humanity. To be fair, the analysis was written in the first weeks of the war, before the impact could be fully felt and known. But today, almost a year into the war, much of the anti-war writing I’ve seen is silent on the following effects of the war.

  • Inflation and concomitant reduction in standards of living;
  • Central banks inching economies toward recession to control inflation;
  • Deeper poverty and the prospect of a debt crisis in low-income countries;
  • The threat of black-outs and power cut-backs in Europe.

Heretofore, 21st century wars have had negligible if any impact on the mass of people, except in the countries affected, with the result that arousing any serious mass opposition has been all but impossible. But the war in Ukraine is one which touches almost everyone in unpleasant ways, and yet the doyens of the “peace movement” have nothing to say about this. Much anti-war writing dwells on the question of how much of the blame for the war lies with Russia and how much with the United States, and absolutely nothing on how this war is affecting nearly everyone and how this offers a greater opportunity than other wars of this century for successful agitation against war and for a Marxist understanding of it.

Into this vacuum has stepped the IMF and World Bank—organizations that call for an end to the war to save humanity from the conflict’s regrettable effects on the material conditions of most people. These organizations have become the unlikely de facto leaders of an anti-war movement. They have focused attention on a matter of the greatest relevance to the greatest number, namely, that on top of killing people in Ukraine, the war is plunging hundreds of millions in low-income countries deeper into poverty, while degrading the living standards of most everyone else. The self-appointed “peace movement”, in contrast, is too busy conducting agitprop for Moscow on social media (or pretending it’s not when it really is) to take any notice that the war has concretely produced an almost universal harm.  

It may be that the pro-Putin wing of the peace movement doesn’t want to draw too much attention to the suffering caused by the war, because most people correctly blame the war on Russia. Russia, after all, is the incontestable proximate cause. Being very vigorous opponents of war, our peace activists don’t want to sully the already sullied reputation of their favorite belligerent.  

In turns out that the love of humanity of this contemptible lot has a very narrow compass; it contains but one class of people–the leaders of US-adversary states. They love the anti-communist, misogynist, homophobic Putin, or whoever he tells them to love, but can’t find the energy to love their neighbors, the people they work with, and the class to which they belong. Their lodestar formula is: Whatever Washington dislikes is good. In another time, these same people would have rushed to defend Hitler, sung paeans to Tojo, and composed panegyrics to Mussolini, for one reason and one reason alone: Washington was against them. That is the sum and substance of their politics: opposition to Washington and solidarity with whoever shares their antipathy, including Chinese billionaires and telecom company executives, Russian oligarchs, and misogynist Iranian theocrats. Their equally repugnant counterparts on the other side, use the repugnance of some of Washington’s adversaries to justify support for Washington—betise of an equally objectionable character.

Meanwhile, you’ll find very little in their activism that tries to show—as “radicals” are supposed to do—what lies at the root of war. How can war be eliminated, or at least markedly suppressed, unless its causes are understood? Of course, some acknowledge the nexus between capitalism and war, and the necessity of abolishing the former to end the latter—as the Socialist Action Canada author did—but even they quickly contradict themselves by claiming wars can be ended short of ending capitalism, by galvanizing public opinion, pressuring governments, and engaging in feckless exhibitionist acts, like taking to the stage to interrupt the speeches of politicians, shouting a demand for the war to end, soon after shuffled away by security as the audience welcomes the ejection of a character they see as a crackpot. Their exhibitionist nonsense creates one impression: Not, the war must end, but, it’s the crackpots who are against it.

But they are the exception. The majority of the “peace movement’s” leaders don’t even go so far as to explore what Lenin called the economic essence or modern politics and war. Instead, they content themselves with generating an endless stream of revolting propaganda on behalf of whichever bourgeois state they’ve decided to docilely follow, like devoted dogs padding obediently after their masters.

Marxist and Liberal Views of War in the Resolutions of the Second international

 Marxist ViewLiberal View
Brussels Congress, 1891“Only the creation of a socialist order, putting an end to the exploitation of man by man, will put an end to militarism and assure permanent peace.”The Congress…calls on all workers to protest, by means of unceasing agitation, against all desires for war.
Zurich Congress, 1893“With the disappearance of class domination, war will likewise disappear. The fall of capitalism means universal peace.”Socialists “must protest unceasingly against standing armies and demand disarmament. The whole of the socialist party must lend its support to all associations whose object is universal peace.”
London Congress, 1896“Under capitalism the chief causes of war are not religious or national differences but economic antagonisms, into which the exploiting classes of the various countries are driven by the system of production for profit. Just as this system sacrifices unceasingly the life and health of the working class on the battlefield of labor, so it has no scruple in shedding their blood in search of profit by the opening up of new markets. The working class of all countries should rise up against military oppression on the same ground that they revolt against all other forms of exploitation under which they are victimized by the possessing class. To attain this object, they must acquire political power, so as to abolish the system of capitalist production.”The working class demands: 1) The simultaneous abolition of standing armies and the establishment of a national citizen force. 2) The establishment of an international tribunal of arbitration whose decision shall be final. 3) The final decision on the question of war or peace to be vested directly in the people in cases where the governments refuse to accept the decision of the tribunal arbitration.
Stuttgart Conference, 1907“Wars between capitalist states are as a rule the consequence of their competition in the world market, for every state is eager not only to preserve its markets but also to conquer new ones, principally by the subjugation of foreign nations and the confiscation of their lands. … Wars are … essential to capitalism; they will not cease until the capitalist system has been done away with…”“The Congress considers that the democratic organization of national defense, by replacing the standing army with the armed people, will prove an effective means for making aggressive wars impossible … ” The resolution goes on to refer “the growing power of the proletariat” through “its energetic intervention” to “maintain peace.”
Copenhagen Conference, 1910“Modern wars are the result of capitalism, and particularly of rivalries of the capitalist classes of the different countries over the world market…Wars will cease completely only with the disappearance of the capitalist mode of production.The Congress suggests that wars can be prevented by socialists undertaking “a vigorous propaganda of enlightenment among all workers…as to the causes of wars, in order to educate them in the spirit of international brotherhood.”   Additionally, it proposes “international arbitration be made compulsory in all international disputes”; “complete disarmament”; “the abolition of secret diplomacy”: and the “guarantee of self-determination of all nations.”   If further urges that, “in the event of war danger” that “immediate steps” be taken “to bring about an agreement among labor parties of the countries affected for united action to prevent the threatened war.”

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