By Helen Shooter
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Labour, the left & a century of war

This article is over 22 years, 1 months old
ANYONE WHO listened to the debate in parliament on 8 October about the war in Afghanistan would have been struck immediately by one fact-nobody spoke clearly for an immediate end to the attacks by the US and Britain. A handful of MPs raised serious questions about the war aims, details of the attacks and what should happen next. But nobody said the war was wrong in principle.
Issue 1771

ANYONE WHO listened to the debate in parliament on 8 October about the war in Afghanistan would have been struck immediately by one fact-nobody spoke clearly for an immediate end to the attacks by the US and Britain. A handful of MPs raised serious questions about the war aims, details of the attacks and what should happen next. But nobody said the war was wrong in principle.

In part this was because some MPs were not called to speak. These included Jeremy Corbyn and George Galloway, who all spoke very well against the war in an earlier debate. But the lack of anti-war speeches also underlines the pull on Labour MPs, even left wing ones, to shut up and support the bombing.

The leadership of the Labour Party have supported nearly every war over the last 100 years and acted to silence any opposition within the party. The most striking example was at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The official position of Labour-style, or social democrat, parties around the world at that time was to oppose war.

They were organised in the Second International, which repeatedly stressed its principled anti-war position at conferences in the run-up to 1914. This was clearly detailed in a resolution at the 1907 conference in Stuttgart. ‘Wars between capitalist states are as a rule the result of their rivalry for world markets,’ it read. ‘Wars are therefore inherent in the nature of capitalism.’

It stated that wars ‘divert the mass of the proletariat from the tasks of its own class as well as from the duty of international class solidarity’. It concluded, ‘In the case of a threat of an outbreak of war it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives to do everything to prevent the outbreak of war by whatever means seems to them most effective.’ Delegates from the British Labour Party, founded in 1906, were amongst those who voted unanimously to reaffirm this position in 1912.

These parties were not marginal. The SPD in Germany was the largest socialist organisation in the world, boasting one million members. If it and the other parties of the Second International had campaigned against the war they would have opened up a crisis in society from top to bottom. Instead the parties abandoned ‘class solidarity’ in favour of ‘national unity’, and backed their own governments in the war. All but two of the 92 SPD members in parliament voted for the war budget. In Britain the Labour Party first joined a coalition government headed by the Liberal Asquith in 1915, and then one with Lloyd George as prime minister in 1916. Two members of the inner war cabinet were from the Labour Party.

Lloyd George admitted, ‘Had Labour been hostile, the war could not have been carried on effectively.’ It was the same story when Tory Margaret Thatcher launched a war against Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982. The Labour leader at the time, Michael Foot, proclaimed himself an ‘inveterate peacemaker’.

But, at a time when the Tories were on the rocks, he put ‘Britain’ first. He demanded war so the Tories would not ‘betray’ the Falkland Islanders. He said, ‘The government must now prove by deeds-they will never be able to do it by words-that they are not responsible for the betrayal.’ The Labour Party’s support played a vital role in allowing the Tories to unleash horror, including the sinking of the Belgrano.

The Labour Party’s support for the Gulf War in 1991 was also crucial. The Tory government claimed Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein was the ‘new Hitler’, who had to be stopped after his army invaded the neighbouring state of Kuwait. It was really a war for control of oil. Tory foreign secretary Douglas Hurd admitted months before the bombing started, ‘We cannot go to war divided.’

He had nothing to worry about. Labour leader Neil Kinnock supported the war wholeheartedly. In January 1991, as the bombing began, shadow foreign secretary Gerald Kaufman announced, ‘The British forces have our total support.’ The leadership put pressure on the small number of Labour MPs who were against the war.

Just 35 Labour MPs voted against the war in parliament. The December before the war started some 60 Labour MPs abstained, including frontbenchers Tony Banks, Clare Short and former chair of CND Joan Ruddock. But they refused to speak out publicly against the war. In February Joan Ruddock explained why she abstained and did not take the stronger stand of voting against the war, saying, ‘You have to go with the consensus.’

Why is Labour so dreadful? It is because the party, even most of its left wing figures, believes that it is ‘our’ country, ‘our’ army, ‘our’ state and ‘our’ national interests which are at stake. So MPs might have doubts and be privately critical, but they pull together at times of crisis. The Labour Party is wedded to capitalism and the competition for profit that makes the system tick.

That competition extends from firms like Ford and General Motors to rival countries competing across the globe. The Labour Party argues to back ‘Britain’ in such a battle. The ‘national interest’ it refers to really means the interests of the rich and powerful. But this is not how governments present the case for war. They would not win support if they argued people must die to help a multinational make more profit or to give the US more influence across the globe.

The Labour left can see through much of this, but they often get caught up in arguments about ‘our’ United Nations. The reality is that the world’s powers act no more compassionately together than they do singly. That is why the UN backed the Gulf War a decade ago. This caught out many opponents of the war who had looked to the UN, and the warmongers then claimed the war was justified.

In a similar way, some people campaigned under the slogan ‘Sanctions not war’. Today we know the sanctions have killed 500,000 Iraqi children. In this current war in Afghanistan Blair wants to claim everyone in Britain and the ‘international community’ are for the bombing.

That is why it is important that those people inside the Labour Party and the wider movement who have doubts about the war speak out rather than hide away. A mass anti-war movement with a clear position against the war can ensure the pressure is put on Blair, and be a beacon to those who can be won to opposing the war.

Either for or against

ROSA LUXEMBURG, a revolutionary in Germany, denounced the pro-war attitude of the Social Democratic Party (SPD, equivalent of the Labour Party) in 1914. She also said that those who had doubts but did not want to speak out had no coherent position-either they came out against the war or ended up supporting the horror:

‘FACED WITH the alternative of coming out for or against the war, Social Democracy, from the moment it abandoned its opposition, has been forced by the iron compulsion of history to throw its full weight behind the war. Events have their own logic, even when human beings do not. Once Social Democracy’s parliamentary representatives had decided in favour of supporting the war, everything else followed automatically with the inevitability of historical destiny.

The services since 4 August that it has rendered and it is rendering daily to the German war leaders are immeasurable: the trade unions that on the outbreak of war shelved their battle for higher wages; the Social Democratic press which propagates the war as a national cause; the Social Democratic parliamentarians who not only consent to funds for the waging of war, but who attempt to suppress energetically any stirrings of doubt in the masses-these are the shields of imperialism.

Neither pious hopes nor cleverly devised utopian formulas addressed to the ruling class can provide effective guarantees of peace or build a wall against war. There is a section of the parliamentary party that supports a continuing war and, in the same breath, praises the desirability of an early peace. If the Social Democratic parliamentarians continue to approve funds for the waging of the war, then their desires and declarations for peace and their solemn proclamation ‘against any policy of conquest’ are a hypocrisy and a delusion.’

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