Category Archives: war and occupation

Hands Off the People of Iran: Week of action (February 13-20 2010)


Report of Hands Off the People of Iran AGM

The following report is by Mark Harrison of The Commune group

Saturday 28th November saw 50-odd people congregate in central London for the 2009 Annual General Meeting of the Hands Off The People of Iran campaign. Being a internationalist socialist campaign this gave oneself the chance to mix with some of the more principled elements of the British left, from class struggle anarchists to the LRC.

The day was opened by a report from Hopi secretary Mark Fischer of the CPGB, he explained that the protest movement emerging this summer around the fraudulent elections had vindicated the organisation’s position. He also attacked the leadership of the Stop The War Coalition for continuing to bar Hopi from affiliation due to our “working class common sense” position of opposing both imperialism and the theocratic regime. In June Hopi approached both SPEW and the SWP for a joint solidarity drive but received no response.

Following the June elections the SWP made one of their characteristically cumbersome shifts in position and now seemingly uncritically supports the Green movement (see Socialist Worker Issue 2156, “People power rocks Iran”). However, they tarnish the meaning of socialism less than the Stalinist George Galloway who appeared on Iranian state television shamelessly defending Ahmadinejad’s government and attacking enemies of the ‘Islamic Revolution’.

The second half of comrade Fischer’s presentation included campaigning priorities for the next 12 months: he bemoaned that although we have strengthened links with dissidents within Iran and the Hopi vs LRC cricket match showed the untapped potential for us to explore, our activist base is the same as last year and we have failed to make any significant breakthrough with trade union affiliations. He ended by suggesting that the employment of a part-timer would help fix these problems.

Speaking from the floor, Charlie Pottins (Jewish Socialists Group) and Andrew Coates said they were disappointed that not enough Hopi supporters were attending demonstrations outside the Iranian embassy as this would be an ideal opportunity to spread our message. Tina Becker commented that although she would welcome the suggestion of a part-timer, she doubted that enough money would be available to pay one. Comrade Becker also mentioned the campaign’s attempts to have its voice heard in a wider a wider selection of media: the piece in Red Pepper was the most viewed on their website for a whole month. However attempts to contact The Guardian and The Independent failed to yield any response.

The next session was entitled ‘Imperialism’s need for conflict and the situation in the Middle East’ with Mike Macnair and Moshé Machover. Comrade Macnair (CPGB) demonstrated using historical examples how capitalism required a ‘top dog’ wheather it be The Netherlands, Britain or America due to the needs of credit money and a central bank. He also claimed that American imperialism is in terminal decline and compared the Vietnam war to the Crimea.

Comrade Machover (founder of the Israeli socialist organisation Matzpen) explained that even if Barack Obama wanted to take a more peaceful turn in US foreign policy this would not happen as he is being constantly hounded by the American right and members of this own party. The comrade warned of the growing threat of war. Benny Morris, one of the ‘New Historians’ has been in the media recently justifying an attack on Iran – this could have the gravest of consequences. Moshé Machover brought his speech to a close by moving his motion, ‘For a Middle East Free of Nuclear Weapons and other WMDs’.

An amendment from Tina Becker was passed which deleted the demand for “effective democratic international supervision” for the decommissioning of nuclear weapons as this could be misread to mean the United Nations. Peter Manson of the CPGB proposed an amendment to state that Hopi is against a ‘mullahs’ bomb’. Some criticised this phrasing, and the manner in which it was proposed – as a reaction to criticism by the Trotskyist group AWL – however, an amendment by Ben Lewis (CPGB) and David Broder (The Commune) stating unequivocal opposition to any development of nuclear weapons in Iran was passed by conference.

Gerry Downing (Socialist Fight) opposed the motion on the grounds that an Iranian nuclear weapon could be used to dissuade an American or Israeli attack and this could become a ‘workers’ bomb’ in the future, the comrade continued that the only reason that the Western world did not launch a nuclear attack on the USSR was due to its own nuclear capabilities. Jack Conrad (CPGB) defended the motion by stating there can be no such thing as this ‘workers’ bomb’ if it is intended to destroy other workers. Moreover, the Soviet Union was not able to hit mainland American until the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The motion was overwhelmingly passed.

Next came elections to the new steering committee, it was decided as only 11 candidates were standing they should all be elected unless anyone was opposed or wished to stand themselves. One comrade questioned the re-election of Stuart King as he was not present and the comrade also questioned Permanent Revolution’s commitment to Hopi, however the record of Stuart and of PR was defended by a majority of those present. The CPGB now hold four out of the positions on the steering committee although I would reject the notion of Hopi being a Weekly Worker front.

After lunch Marsha-Jane Thompson of the LRC read out a message of support from John McDonnell MP which received a round of applause. Comrade Thompson chaired the session lead by Cyrus Bina who attacked the idea of Iranian demonstrators mostly coming from the middle classes as 3 million people had been on the streets at one point. He also pointed out that sanctions are often a precursor to war and hit the country’s poorest the hardest, as was seen in Iraq from 1990 to 2003 – Hussein and his gang still lived in comfort whilst an estimated 500,000 lives were needlessly lost due to sanctions. (See Unicef reports)

Heading into the final session Iranian exile and Hopi chair Yassamine Mather spoke on the activity of the Iranian workers’ movement since June and moved a motion opposing sanctions which was passed unanimously. As was a motion from Ben Lewis (CPGB) which called for a day of solidarity with Iranian workers.

The final piece of business of the afternoon was a motion entitled ‘No to state murders’ moved by Charlie Pottins. On the 11th of November, Ehsa Fattahian, a Kurdish socialist was killed by the Islamic Republic. Pottins called for workers to oppose the repressive nature of the Iranian regime and the oppression of national minorities like the Kurds. The motion also attacked the Iranian state for becoming a platform for Holocaust deniers as well as refuting capitalist propaganda which compares the Islamicist regime with Hitler’s fascism. I voted for an amendment moved by Gerry Downing which called for a re-wording of the phrase ‘self-determination for all.’ However this amendment was defeated.

I considered the day a success, however it is worrying that we cannot attract more support for our cause.

Is it the oil, stupid?

Cyrus BinaTo say that oil figures prominently in the Middle East is to state the obvious. However, does this mean that the politics of imperialism in the region should be solely or mainly explained through attempts to gain control over oilfields and pipelines? That has certainly been the approach of much of the left in Britain and elsewhere. Noted US-based academic Cyrus Bina, author of The economics of the oil crisis, disagrees with such crude simplifications. Having studied the oil industry, international relations and global economics for many years, he has developed a sophisticated Marxist theory of the oil crisis, oil rent, and monopoly and competition in the oil industry. Here, in this short, representative, article, first published in 2004, he makes a convincing case that the US under George W Bush was not concerned with obtaining direct control over oilfields.1 With the ongoing US-UK campaign to impose tougher sanctions on Iran, including its huge oil industry, plans for regime change brought about from above and, failing that, a devastating military strike, the left urgently needs to correct past mistakes. Cyrus Bina is about to embark on a speaking tour of Britain that will include meetings in Manchester, Glasgow and London. In particular he will be addressing the November 28 annual general meeting of Hands Off the People of Iran

Saddam Hussein was an ideal enemy and Iraq was an easy target. Iraq had already lost nearly two thirds of its forces and more than 80% of its infrastructure and civil society in the 1990-91 Gulf War and, if that was not enough, it was subjected to frequent American and British bombings, along with nearly 12 years of stringent sanctions. The war against a weak symbolic enemy seemed inevitable.2

In the May 12 2003 issue of The Nation, there appeared a tiny piece entitled, ‘It’s the oil, stupid’, by Michael T Klare, who – like much of the majority of the popular left – is obsessed with oil in connection with the deceitful invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration.

To be sure, the motivation of the Cheney-Wolfowitz gang and the impeachable actions of the president himself all point in the direction of personal gain. Similarly, the fact of the transfer of tens of billions of dollars from the public coffers to the willing hands of a handful of favourite companies that were readily chosen as the beneficiary of this destructive creation is beyond dispute. Yet, to be worthy of analysis, one needs to be brave enough to go beyond surface phenomena in order to grasp the complexities associated with deeper epochal understanding of this bizarre tragedy.

Writers like Klare and George Caffentzis (the latter, incidentally, holds that oil is a “metaphysical” commodity) should realise that their oil scenario, firstly, ignores the analytical periodisation of oil history into: (a) the cartelisation of oil; (b) the transitional period of 1950-72; and (c) the globalisation of the entire oil industry since the mid-1970s. Secondly, it overlooks the distinction between ‘administrative pricing’ and value theoretic price formation. Thirdly, it neglects the nature of property relations, formation of differential oil rents, and character of the Organisation of Oil-Exporting Countries (Opec) in the (post-1974) globalisation of oil. Fourthly, it discounts the pivotal role of the least productive US oilfields that is key to the worldwide pricing of oil. Fifthly, it fails to recognise that Opec prices are constrained by worldwide competitive spot (oil) prices, and thus Opec oil rents are subject to global competition. And finally their oil scenario fails to realise that the unqualified usage of words, such as ‘access’, ‘dependency’ and ‘control’, in the context of a globalised oil industry, is anachronistic.3

Hegemony and mediation

The concept of hegemony is indivisible and ‘organic’ in respect to its constituent economic, political and ideological counterparts. And it is due to the consensual internal dynamics and intrinsic ideological power of the whole that one can exert minimal external and antagonistic power projection. This, in a broad measure, defines hegemony and its relevance to international relations, for instance, during the rise and fall of Pax Americana (1945-79). Gramsci, nevertheless, focuses on the “organic intellectuals” and examines their relationship with the “world of production” mediated through the complex intricacies of “civil society” and “political society”.4

Hegemony, in my view, has four characteristics. It must be: (a) organically consensual; (b) internally driven; (c) historically endowed; and (d) institutionally mediating. The focus here is upon the rise and fall of Pax Americana, a historically specific inter-state transnational system that rose after 1945 and fell in the late 1970s. The matter of hegemony and hegemonic structure is the mutual characteristic of the system as a whole, and not a separate property of the hegemon. Therefore, given the demise of Pax Americana, the claim of American hegemony remains baseless.

The epochal measure of hegemony

In order to see the concrete manifestation of hegemony in the then-ascendant Pax Americana,5 one has to focus on the application of the (tripartite) ‘doctrine of global containment’ after World War II. This doctrine embodied: (a) the containment of the Soviet Union; (b) the containment of democratic/nationalist movements in the ‘third world’; and (c) the containment, cooption and moulding of the social, political and intellectual atmosphere in the United States.6

The example of the first containment is the forceful confinement of the Soviets behind the ‘iron curtain’ and imposition of cold war. The cold war was a multidimensional hegemonic phenomenon, spanning the economy, polity and the entire realm of culture and ideology worldwide.

Evidence of the second type of containment is the declaration of an anti-colonial policy, on the one hand, and subversion of the democratic national movements in the ‘third world’, on the other. This doctrine often led to covert campaigns and coup d’etats that brought a number of dictatorial regimes to power whose contradictory material existence and discursive mirror image have, nevertheless, become an embodiment of Pax Americana itself.7 At the same time, America’s deliberate attempt at the speedy economic transformation of these social formations – for instance, via the introduction and forceful implementation of universal land reform programmes – has led to their hasty inclusion within the capitalist sphere of transnational exploitation and transnational markets.

Finally, the third containment strategy was implemented in terms of US domestic thought control and marginalisation of independent and militant institutions and labour unions within America’s ‘civil society’. Thus, historically, the American state smashed the militant labour unions and political and professional institutions of the left in order to universalise a ‘hegemonic model’ of intellectual emulation that shifted the entire American political spectrum significantly to the reactionary right. McCarthyism was just the tip of the iceberg in this regard.8 Here, underpinning social relations, on the one hand, and the mediating economic, political and ideological institutions, on the other hand, have reflected the measure of hegemony embedded in this system.

At a more concrete level, since the 1970s, it is through the particular historical relationship of state and the manifold social, political and economic integration and disintegration vis-à-vis transnational capital that the US-dominated hierarchy of Pax Americana and thus American hegemony has come to an end. Yet during the ‘golden age’, Soviet containment had its own manifold objectives that proved successful. The containment of democracy and independence in the third world chunk of Pax Americana had, nonetheless, left some degree of formal national sovereignty. And post-war containment of people’s political thought and action in US domestic ‘civil society’ had not led to the establishment of a police state with arbitrary, pre-emptive and systemic totalitarian objectives, if not practices.

In December 2001, the Bush administration unveiled its ‘National strategy to combat weapons of mass destruction’.9 The Bush administration used the unfortunate events of September 11 2001 as a convenient cover in order to advance toward its ‘permanent war’ policy.10 This was a formal annunciation of the Doctrine of pre-emption, a fundamental policy break from the Doctrine of containment, as follows:

“An effective strategy for countering WMD [weapons of mass destruction], including their use and further proliferation, is an integral component of the national security strategy of the United States of America. As with the war on terrorism [ie, invasion of Afghanistan, etc], our strategy for homeland security, and our new concept of deterrence, the US approach to combat WMD represents a fundamental change from the past ….

“Because deterrence may not succeed, and because of the potentially devastating consequences of WMD use against our forces and civilian population, US military forces and appropriate civilian agencies must have the capability to defend against WMD-armed adversaries, including in appropriate cases through pre-emptive measures. This requires capabilities to detect and destroy an adversary’s WMD assets before these weapons are used” (emphasis added).11

The mismeasure of ‘blood for oil’

Institutionally, the traditional petroleum cartels must be viewed as a precursor to, and not a substitute for, the highly developed contemporary global oil market. Today’s oil sector is globally structured and competitive.12

Here, contrary to the bourgeois reading of the term, competition is neither perfect nor imperfect. It rather reflects the coercive aspect of concentration and centralisation of capital in the oil industry. Yet, the myth of the war-for-oil scenario is hard to resist.

On the right, in an interview, James Schlesinger remarked: “The United States [Bush, the father] has gone to war now, and the American people presume this will lead to a secure oil supply. As a society we have made a choice to secure access to oil by military means. The alternative is to become independent to a large degree of that secure access.”13 On the left, Michael Klare declared: “Two key concerns underlie the administration’s [Bush, the son] thinking: First, the United States is becoming dangerously dependent on imported petroleum to meet its daily energy requirements, and second, Iraq possesses the world’s largest reserves of untapped petroleum after Saudi Arabia.”14

Thus, the positions of the right and the left on the cause of these wars are remarkably identical. The question is, why? Is it because of the correctness of rightwing neoclassical theory in revealing the universal truth? Or is it because of the fallacious economic ideology that is uncritically accepted by the theoryless and clueless left?

Finally, the Indian leftist electronic journal Aspects of India’s economy devoted its entire December 2002 double-issue to ‘What is behind the invasion of Iraq’.15 The authors conclude, among other things, that the attempted conversion of oil revenues from the US dollar to the euro prompted the invasion of Iraq by United States. As Krugman pointed out in a short note, any possible shift from the US dollar to the euro on the part of Opec will result in a “small change”.16

However, the fly-by-night authors do not lose any opportunity to grasp this straw in the midst of dreadful confusion. The globalisation of oil since the mid-1970s has rendered the sui generis categories of ‘access’ and ‘dependency’ meaningless.17 Based on my value-theoretic framework, I distinguish between what is ‘organic’ and what is ‘conjectural’ in the pricing of oil. To be sure, the price of production of the highly explored oilfields within the US lower 48 states is the global centre of gravity of oil prices everywhere. As a result, in competition, the more productive oilfields in the world are potentially able to collect additional profits in terms of oil rents.

Let us look at a simple exercise, attempting the calculation of the value of all Iraqi proven oil reserves in today’s prices.18 Given the Iraqi proven oil reserves of nearly 110 billion barrels, in two separate assumptions, let us assume two alternative production schedules of 2.5 and 5 million daily barrels, as follows:

If the rate of utilisation of these reserves, ceteris paribus, will be set at 2.5 and 5 million average daily barrels, these oil reserves would be exhausted within nearly 120 years and 60 years, respectively. Accordingly, our respective annual production schedules are:
1. (2.5 x 365 = 912.5) 912.5 million annual barrels
2. (5 x 365 = 1,825) 1,825 million annual barrels.

Assuming $20 per barrel for the price of Iraqi oil (viz the 1990s average market price) and about $10 for the Persian Gulf differential oil rent.19

Let us further assume:
1. an 8% real discount rate;
2. a 3% annual inflation rate;
3. a 3% annual growth rate of addition to the proven reserves.

Scenario 1

1. The assumption of 2.5 million daily barrels: Given an annual production volume of 912.5 million barrels within 120 years and $10 of differential oil rent per barrel, the value of differential oil rents for 120 years is as follows:
912.5 million x 120 = 109.5 billion barrels
109.5 billion x $10 = $1.095 trillion

Given an 8% annual discount rate, a 3% annual rate inflation and a 3% annual growth rate of addition to proven reserves, we have applicable rate of discount of 8%. Thus, the present value of $1.095 trillion at 8% discount rate to be received in a lump sum after 120 years is $106.8 million.

2. The assumption of five million daily barrels: Given an annual production volume of 1,825 million barrels within 60 years and a $10 differential oil rent per barrel, the value of differential oil rents at the end of 60 years is as follows:
1,825 million x 60 = 109.5 billion barrels
109.5 billion x $10 = $1.095 trillion

Given an 8% annual discount rate, a 3% annual rate inflation and a 3% annual growth rate of addition to the proven reserves, we would have applicable rate of discount of 8%. Thus, present value of $1.095 trillion at 8% discount rate to be received in lump sum after 60 years is $10.81 billion.

Based upon the second, much larger figure of the two, the price tag for differential oil rents in Iraq is slightly less than $11 billion. Now, let us assume that the Iraqi oil reserves are underestimated: say, that they are five times the reported figures. Thus, ceteris paribus, one would arrive at $11 billion x 5 = $55 billion. Now, let us double our reasonable figure of $10 for differential rent per barrel. Again, we would never arrive at a figure much larger than $110 billion for the present value of all differential oil rents to be paid to the Iraqis. In other words, the ‘Iraqi oil price tag’ does not exceed $110 billion to be received in lump sum at the end of the period. This is indeed chump change, given the staggering costs associated with prosecuting the war and the unanticipated financial and incalculable human costs of the occupation of Iraq.

Scenario 2

Let us further assume that the proceeds from differential oil rents in Iraq will be received on an annual basis: say, for 55 years. In other words, assume that the Bush administration and its future successors are able to invent a pill that tranquillises not only the people of Iraq, but also the people of the entire world in order to calmly and comfortably steal the Iraqi oil rents for 55 years, till 2058. Now we need to calculate the summation of the present value of annuitised annual Iraqi oil rents for the period of 55 years. This scenario is more realistic, since the payments of oil rents are made on an annual basis. Again, for the sake of argument, we have chosen a much larger average figure of 5 million daily barrels, assuming a very optimistic production schedule:
5 million x 365 = 1.825 billion annual barrels
1.825 billion x $10 = $18.25 billion

The present value of $18.250 billion annual payment, to be paid for 55 consecutive years is equal to $224.8 billion.

According to the Nordhaus estimates, the direct and indirect costs of forceful occupation of Iraq would range somewhere between $120 billion and $1.6 trillion over a 10-year period.20 Should my estimated value of Iraqi oil warrant such a huge undertaking? As we can see, the reductionist view of ‘no blood for oil’ is hardly an answer to the complex objective forces that – despite the misleading intention of new US foreign policy – are underlying the upheavals of present global polity. Rather such misleading intention, and prior and subsequent actions on the part of the US government, are readily explicable by the underlying epochal forces that so irreversibly led to America’s loss of hegemony, on the one hand, and American refusal to accept it gracefully, on the other hand.

This is the main and real cause of the new world disorder rather than this ad hoc ‘oil scenario’ that the popular left harps on about.


  1. This article originally appeared in Union for Radical Political Economics Newsletter of spring 2004. See
  2. See, for instance, a neo-conservative view by Kenneth Adelman: ‘Cakewalk in Iraq’, The Washington Post February 13 2002.
  3. For theoretical underpinnings see C Bina The economics of the oil crisis New York 1985.
  4. A Gramsci The prison notebooks New York1971, p161.
  5. See R Steel Pax Americana New York 1977.
  6. See GF Kennan Memoirs: 1925-1950 Boston 1967.
  7. The 1953 and 1954 CIA coups against Mossadegh and Arbenz are but the two prime examples.
  8. See MB Levin Political hysteria in America: the democratic capacity for repression New York 1971.
  9. One has to distinguish between epochal and temporal reflections of the Bush administration.
  10. The Wolfowitz-Berle neo-conservative project of permanent war, particularly for ‘redrawing’ the map of the Middle East, was formulated long before September 11 2001.
  11. White House The national security strategy of the United States of America September 17 2002, pp1,3.
  12. Here competition is defined in Marxian terms.
  13. J Schlesinger, interview: ‘Will war yield oil security?’ Challenge March-April 1991.
  14. MT Klare, ‘Oiling the wheels of war’ The Nation October 7 2002. As a corollary, the ‘necessity’ of oil exploration from Alaska’s wildlife can also be justified by such arguments.
  15. ‘Behind the invasion of Iraq’ Aspects of India’s economy No33-34, December 2002.
  16. See P Krugman, ‘Nothing for money’, March 14 2003:
  17. MT Klare, ‘Oiling the wheels of war’ The Nation October 7 2002.
  18. This is a rough exercise just for the sake of illustration and approximation of the order of magnitude of Iraqi oil rents. One or two points in the discount rate or inflation rate would not make a significant difference in the basic argument. The figure of $224.8 billion is for 55 consecutive years. If the occupation of Iraq is assumed to be for a 10-year period or so, then a fraction of this figure will be relevant, which in turn will be even much smaller in magnitude than the commonly estimated cost of US war and occupation of Iraq.
  19. See C Bina The economics of the oil crisis New York 1985.
  20. WD Nordhaus, ‘Iraq: the economic consequences of war’ New York Review of Books Vol 49 (19), December 5 2002.

Joining a rogues’ gallery – Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize

Barack Obama is presiding over an escalation of military action in Afghanistan. Despite that, he is a hero for the liberal bourgeoisie, writes James Turley

obama.phpFairly soon after Barack Obama’s victory in last year’s presidential elections, there appeared an amusing little website called Bad Paintings of Barack Obama,1 which randomly flashes up canvasses of dubious merit – a few paranoiac and hostile, the vast majority rapturously enthusiastic – all featuring the charismatic president.

Last week, one could be forgiven for thinking that this glut of kitsch fantasy art had somehow bled into reality, Who framed Roger Rabbit?-style. Obama – commander in chief, lest we forget, of a military presently engaged in a bloody and apparently endless war in Afghanistan, with whom the buck stops over unmanned drone killings, election-rigging and incursions into Pakistan – is the latest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

It would be one thing, of course, if Obama had made serious efforts to end, or even scale down, America’s involvement in Afghanistan – but the reverse, of course, is true: he went to the polls with the message that Iraq was “the wrong war”, whereas Afghanistan was winnable and should indeed be won. Such a view was briefly fashionable, as the American and British militaries began to withdraw from Iraq, with attention focused on the Afghan disaster instead. Now, it is clear that optimism over Afghanistan was a fantasy – but it is a fantasy that has left Obama committed to scaling up America’s commitment in that battered country.

The ostensible reason for the award, unsurprisingly, is unconnected with the bloodbath that renders it in any case farcical – Obama is to be rewarded for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. Those watching the president closely as he wrangled somewhat feebly over the content of health policy and attempted to manage an international recession in the interests of finance capital might ask themselves, ‘Exactly what extraordinary efforts are these?’

Well, let us turn to the Nobel committee for an answer: “Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.”2

Inasmuch as this represents a soup of stale platitudes, it is almost appropriate – after all, if there is one thing Obama is not short of, it is uplifting banalities. Exactly what is this “more constructive role” over climate change? In what sense can somebody happy to maintain an enormous nuclear arsenal be commended for his commitment to disarmament? At least he is the first president to tout “democracy and human rights” since … well, the last president (admittedly he is a little more rhetorically convincing on the issue).

The icing on the comedy cake is, of course, the timing. Obama has been in office for about nine months – and they have not been particularly easy. His gifts as a speaker, for projecting sincerity and inspiring devotion among millions, cannot be doubted. But that was about the only thing that could not be doubted at the time nominations closed on February 1 – a whopping 12 days after Obama was sworn in.

Who are the bright sparks behind this decision? Ultimately, the blame rests with the Scandinavian establishment – the peace prize portfolio is the responsibility of the Norwegian Nobel Committee (all the other prizes are awarded by Swedish bodies), which is selected by the Norwegian parliament, the Storting. As is customary, the make-up of the five-strong committee reflects the make-up of the Storting – this year, that means two members of the Labour Party and one each from the Socialist Left, Progress and Conservative parties. That is supposedly a fairly broad spectrum of opinion, from the former ‘official communists’ of the Socialist Left to the populist Thatcherites of Progress – yet apparently the decision was unanimous.

The peace prize was established in 1901, along with all the other Nobel prizes (barring the semi-detached economics award, founded in 1969 by the Swedish central bank). Alfred Nobel had been one of Sweden’s most prominent scientists and inventors – he is most celebrated for his invention of dynamite. The military applications of his invention did not escape notice at the time, and Nobel appears to have been spurred to found the prizes by the erroneous publication of a scathing obituary in a French newspaper years before his death. Nobel was a pacifist, and by the end of his life an extraordinarily wealthy one; his will designated his fortune to be used annually to reward “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. An idealistic internationalist, Nobel was wise enough to specify that “no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not”.3

A Nobel prize in the sciences has become undoubtedly the most prominent and prestigious honour in their respective fields, and the decisions are largely uncontroversial, since verified discoveries in the natural sciences for the most part take place ‘behind the back’ of politics, as it were. No such immunity is available to the peace prize, however; its purview is so ill-defined that almost anyone who has made a political splash in the international arena is up for it. On several occasions, organisations have won rather than individuals (most recently the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the green-themed 2007 award with Al Gore).

Narrowing the field of prominent international statesmen and NGOs is a fishy business – and to a large extent dictated by the covert political priorities of the imperialist order, with a modicum of Scandinavian social democratic ‘critical distance’, of course. Obama is “humbled”, according to his acceptance speech, to share the prize with many of his icons – one wonders if he has in mind Henry Kissinger, who was honoured in 1973 for concluding the Paris peace accords over the Vietnam war. He was supposed to share it with North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho, but the latter turned it down: there was, he said, still no peace in his country.

He would have been within his rights to object simply to sharing any award with Kissinger. Taken on as an advisor to Richard Nixon and a legendarily cynical icon of cold war Realpolitik, Kissinger masterminded the ruthless bombing of Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam conflict, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. He oversaw US support for brutal military coups, most infamously the overthrow of Chilean socialist Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet. Those two atrocities were accomplished or well underway by the time Kissinger became a Nobel laureate – and he has repeatedly advised US governments since on its shadier activities, most recently turning up in the George W Bush kitchen cabinet in the early days of the Iraq war.

Kissinger is only the most foul of a rogues’ gallery of Nobel peace laureates that includes Menachem Begin (former leader of the quasi-fascist Irgun Zionist militia, and later the first Likud prime minister of Israel), the last apartheid president of South Africa, FW de Klerk, and many other dubious figures.

And now Obama. Interestingly, however, this is not simply a piece of Atlanticist fawning. The timing of the award has been interpreted by some as a calculated snub to the outgoing US administration.4 There is some background to this, as well; in 2002, the grateful recipient was former US president Jimmy Carter, whose human rights offensive during his bungled tenure has blossomed into a life-long quest.

Though he can hardly be described as an anti-imperialist, the fact that a ‘progressive’ American political grandee should be awarded at a time when the US, under George W Bush, was very much on a war footing and clamping down on domestic dissent, raised a few questions. Gunnar Berge, head of the committee that year, confirmed suspicions: “With the position Carter has taken on [the coming war with Iraq], it can and must also be seen as criticism of the line the current US administration has taken …”5

So is this a ‘reward’ for Americans choosing to come in from the cold and embrace ‘multilateralism’, ‘peace’ and ‘human rights’, with Obama their gleaming-toothed avatar? Or is it simply a delayed Scandinavian ripple of the mass hysteria that greeted his election, nearly a year ago? In truth, it barely matters; it is difficult to decide which reflects more badly on the prize. Obama has three years to go, and plans to dive right into ‘solving’ the Iranian ‘problem’; we can also expect some further grossly undemocratic deals to be foisted on the Palestinians. By 2012 America could be at war with Iran and Israel-Palestine again the site of mass bloodshed. ‘Hostage to fortune’ does not quite cover it.

It would not be the first time the committee’s decisions have come to look a bit silly. Henry Kissinger has been mentioned; the Oslo accords occasioned a three-way award to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and here we are 15 years later, still waiting for peace.

Capitalism generates war; it relies on a system of competing states to function, and this competition necessarily spills over into armed struggle. It needs international transactions to be guaranteed and a military force to supply that guarantee, which means a global hegemon state (or bloc of states). Against this background, the Nobel Peace Prize can only ever be an expression of starry-eyed utopianism, befitting its bourgeois pacifist founder; between Kissinger and Obama, it has reduced itself to quixotic self-parody.


  4. See, for example, New York Times October 9.

Lenin, Kautsky, and 1914

In the second of his talks to the CPGB’s Communist University, Lars T Lih takes a closer look at Lenin’s reaction to the betrayal of German social democracy at the outbreak of World War I

We all know the famous anecdote about Lenin when he received the news that the Germany Social Democratic Party’s delegation to the Reichstag had voted for war credits – he initially believed it was a forgery put out by the bourgeoisie in order to whip up support for the war. I would like to put this and other such shocks into a more exact context.

On August 1 1914 Germany declared war on Russia, and at that time Lenin was living in a village in Poland which was under Austrian control. It was on August 5 that he discovered the SPD delegation had voted for war credits. They could have abstained, but they did not even do this and that completely floored him.

But then he had another problem to deal with, because the Austrian authorities were wondering about this suspicious character who spoke Russian, had French money and went for walks in the hills. Lenin was jailed on suspicion of spying and held from August 8 to August 19. One of the reasons he managed to get out so quickly (as opposed to his arrest 10 years earlier) was that he now had friends in high places: namely Victor Adler, the leader of Austrian Social Democracy, who called on the minister of the interior to release Lenin, who was, after all, one of the biggest opponents of the tsar.

But before he finally got out he received yet another shock: a French leaflet had been issued under the title, ‘Declaration of Russian socialists joining the French army as volunteers’. The war fervour was such that even some Bolsheviks had become swept up in it. I would like to emphasise just how tough these weeks were for Lenin – he had all this to think about combined with the ill-health of his mother-in-law, who was dying.

He arrived in Bern on September 5 for a meeting with the local Bolsheviks and presented to them the principles of his programme for the next two to three years. Either he had managed to undertake some sort of rethink in this short time or he did not have to do so. By outlining these dates and details I am trying to suggest that it was the latter.

But actually the shocks were not over. The most personally upsetting one related to Karl Kautsky – the mentor whose writings Lenin had unreservedly admired. Kautsky was now writing articles that wibbled, wobbled and wavered and did not live up to what Lenin thought he should be saying. Lenin was devastated.

In September 1914 but before these Kautsky articles came out, Lenin had written that the dangers of opportunism had long been pointed out by the greatest representatives of the workers’ movement of all countries, and it is pretty clear that it was predominantly Kautsky and Luxemburg he had in mind. But now one of these two finest representatives was writing articles that essentially justified what the Reichstag deputies did. A famous account in a letter to one of his comrades says: ‘I hate more than anybody else this dirty, vile, self-satisfied, smug hypocrisy of Kautsky’.1 I may have left out a term or two, but his strong, emotional response was evident.

Another of Lenin’s letter to the same addressee, Shlapnikov, a week later contained the line: “Obtain without fail and reread Kautsky’s The road to power and see what he says there about the tasks of our time. And now how he acts the toady and disavows all that!”2 The reason he is so angry and upset is because this book, along with Kautsky’s views, were so right. What was in that book and what did it mean to talk about “the tasks of our times”?

Aggressive unoriginality

There are two ways of looking at this. The traditional way on the left is to say that the Reichstag vote and other shocks led Lenin to a process of rethinking Marxism – he came to understand the fallacious nature of the Second International’s version and either returned to the roots of Marxism or came up with new theories.

One story is that he read Hegel, rediscovered the dialectic, and then applied that to the tasks of his time (he did, of course, read Hegel, but that was not the reason for his platform at the time). Another story is that Nikolai Bukharin was a big influence on him, and so on. I refer to this as the ‘rethinking’ way of looking at Lenin in 1914.

I have my term for what I think is happening, and that is aggressive unoriginality. Why? If you read Lenin’s writings in the period between 1914 and 1916 he sort of grabs you by the throat and says, ‘I am not original, OK? I am just saying what everybody else was saying. This was the educated Marxist consensus which is now being betrayed.’ Now, this could just be rhetoric, but it could also neatly express what is going on. And I think it could also lead us to Lenin’s platform, outlook and definition of the situation in these years and, secondly, to a closer look at the ideological background and historical context of those ideas.

I refer to 1914-1916 as the ‘left Zimmerwald’ years. Zimmerwald is the little village in Switzerland, where in September 1915 a three-day conference was held of the movement’s representatives from various countries who opposed the war. ‘Left Zimmerwald’ came to be known as the faction that Lenin led within that movement. It was more revolutionary and wanted a more radical, defeatist and non-pacifist position, which marked them out from many of the others. This is significant in that it marks the first time that Lenin was a leader on a European scale, staking a leadership claim over a very small but well-known grouping.

Lenin made the point that all left Zimmerwaldians were saying what Kautsky had been saying before 1914: namely that revolution will come from war and that we will be faced with a new revolutionary situation – an example of this ‘aggressive unoriginality’. Lenin insisted that it was his grouping that had the strongest connections with what Kautsky had been saying in The road to power.

So let me say a few words about this book, which is not very long – more like a pamphlet of 80-90 pages. It came out in 1909 and it is the end part of a development that began in 1902 with a book called The social revolution. Against the revisionists, both these books were adamant that not only is revolution necessary, but that it is becoming more necessary – the contradictions are sharpening and we are entering into a revolutionary era.

Actually, the experience of trying to get this book published told Kautsky that something was wrong with the party, because the leadership said that they would not produce it under the party name – under the pretext that this would risk prosecution for high treason. This excuse was not quite plucked out of thin air, but its basis was pretty thin. So Kautsky had to fight behind closed doors and the compromise was that the book would be published if he would agree to change the odd word or two. He did not change anything significant though.

Almost before it was published in Germany under the auspices of the party, it was already being translated and published elsewhere – including in Russia. Oddly enough, there is no record of Lenin commenting on it until 1914, when he started making these pleas to reread it. I think he took his own advice to Shlapnikov, because he wrote an article in which he literally went through The road to power pulling out quotes along the way, pointing out what Kautsky had said before.

He began: “For decades, German social democracy was a model to the social democrats of Russia – even more so than for any other country in the world. It is therefore clear that there can be no intelligent attitude towards the new social chauvinism without a precise definition of one’s attitude towards German social democracy. What was it in the past? What is it today? What will it be in the future? Part of the first of these questions can be found in The road to power – a pamphlet written by Kautsky in 1909 and translated into many different languages [a point made in order to highlight just how authoritative this international work is] containing a most complete exposition of the tasks of our times. I am going to go into this in some detail, since it now these ideals are so barefacedly cast aside.”3

Lenin concludes by arguing: “This is German social democracy at its finest. This is the German social democracy that had promise and this is the German social democracy that one can and must respect.”4 I am trying to get across not only how strongly he felt, but his belief that this “social democracy at its finest” was still valid.

Neither did Lenin change his mind on this. He kept repeating the same things throughout this period – I think the last such reference is in 1918 or 1919. In State and revolution he criticises The road to power for not mentioning the state, but still says that it is the best of Kautsky’s books. He does not actually criticise anything that Kautsky says: merely what he does not say on the state. Even then he still agrees with the arguments.


I am going to do a little summary of the book to clarify things. This summary will only consist of quotes that Lenin himself pulled out when reading it again. So in a sense this is Lenin’s summary of the book.

“We are entering a new age of revolutions”. “In particular … a world war is imminent and war also means revolution.” “This revolutionary situation will lead to an acceleration of social polarisation”, since “the rate of advance becomes very rapid as soon as the time of revolutionary fervour comes”. “For one thing, petty bourgeois forces such as the peasantry are capable of coming over to our side en masse”. “Western Europe is ripe for socialism … therefore the proletariat can no longer speak of a premature revolution.” “In fact, the long-awaited dictatorship of the proletariat is a real possibility in the near future.” The duty of the socialist party is therefore to remain “consistent, unshakeable and irreconcilable”.

I should also mention that there is a scenario of global revolution in this book which was picked up and used by Lenin.

In good dialectical fashion I am going to move from the abstract to the concrete. The most abstract thing concerns the idea of a revolutionary situation: we alternate between periods of peaceful development and periods that are revolutionary – utterly dissimilar. Peaceful and revolutionary situations are different in their logic and everything about them – including the tactics that are called forth. One such difference relates to the tempo of development. This is what Kautsky said (I think this is interesting because it helps to explain why Lenin and many other revolutionaries admired Kautsky):

“When times of revolutionary ferment come, the tempo of development at once becomes rapid. It is quite incredible how quickly the masses of the population learn in such times and achieve clarity about their own class interests – not only their courage and their desire to fight, but also their political interest is spurred on in the most powerful way by the consciousness that the time has arisen for them to rise by their efforts out of the darkest night into the bright glory of the sun. Even the most sluggish become industrious, even the most cowardly bold, even the most intellectually limited acquire a wider mental grasp. In such times, political education of the masses that would otherwise require generations takes place in years.”5

Lenin also picks up on this idea that you learn more in months in a revolutionary situation than you would in decades of peaceful development many times in his writings. By the way, I think that this idea comes from the Marxist notion that revolutionary situations are not created by the party. The party is revolutionary, but it is objective forces that prepare the way for revolution – you just have to be ready. Therefore you need new tactics.

At the time of writing The road to power Kautsky had been engaged in a polemic with Rosa Luxemburg. He argued that a mass strike is fine for a revolutionary situation, but we are not in one now so let us not use it just yet.

I am not going to evaluate the situation that was actually faced, but will merely highlight how the idea of a revolutionary situation affects the context of the party’s response. That is the most abstract idea. Next we are going to progress to another fairly abstract set of necessary and sufficient conditions for recognising a revolutionary situation. There is a fairly well known Lenin quote on this, and what is interesting is that it bears a very strong resemblance to the one presented by Kautsky.

Kautsky offers four conditions: 1. a regime hostile to the people; 2. a party of irreconcilable opposition; 3. mass support given to the party; 4. a regime crisis of confidence.

Lenin’s own definition also contains four parts, and the ‘aggressive unoriginality’ rhetoric can once more be seen when Lenin states: “Such are the Marxist views on revolution – views that have been developed many, many times, have been accepted as indisputable by all Marxists and for us Russians were corroborated in a particularly striking fashion by the experience of 1905.”6 So again he his disclaiming any originality for his own definition.

Kautsky was one of the first to have the idea of moving into one of three periods – 1. a revolutionary period up until 1871; 2. a peaceful period of development between 1871 and 1905; and then 3. 1905 onwards – a new era of revolutions, unrest and accelerated revolutionary development. Lenin adopted this idea, and it is part of his explanation for what happened to the Second International – ie, that during the time of peace it degenerated.

Turning to the concrete, let us look at what Kautsky said and what Lenin picked up on in terms of the expected revolutionary situation in Europe. In western Europe, there were sharpening class contradictions – not the softening of them, as the revisionists around those like Bernstein maintained. The framework and the prerequisites of socialism are in place and therefore it is impossible to speak of a premature revolution. At one point Lenin said of this: “There is no need for us to prove that the objective conditions in western Europe are ripe for socialist revolution. This was admitted before the war by all influential socialists in all advanced countries.”7

That quote brings out two things. Firstly, whilst Kautsky was the main guy, Lenin is clearly talking of all influential socialists in the advanced countries. Secondly, the statement, “There is no need for us to prove …”, in my opinion shows the rhetorical use of this aggressive unoriginality. He is saying that not just some radical Russian is telling you this – it is the informed consensus of the experts, so you had better believe it! And, by the way, Kautsky himself had said that there was nothing new in The road to power, but that it was merely a summation of what he had been arguing for the previous seven or eight years.

Then there was what I call the ‘global interactive revolutionary scenario’. This is an aspect of Kautsky which I think has not been fully explored. And he was also highly interested in colonial policy – the first attack on Edward Bernstein, which led to the famous debates of the 1890s, was over colonial policy, because Bernstein fought for an ethical or ‘nice’ colonialism. As I mentioned in my last talk, Kautsky was particularly interested in and knowledgeable about Russia, and the Bolsheviks were picking up on this global scenario even before the outbreak of war.

What are the features of this? Firstly, the ‘interactive’ formula generally means that events in one country have a strong influence on those in other countries, and Kautsky stresses that as something we have to understand. How does he fill this picture out? Firstly, there are all sorts of linkages between the class struggles in various countries. One is that people can read and know about them – particularly the case for Russia, where everybody has been influenced by events in western Europe. Any class struggle today will be different to those of yesterday because people can know about and be influenced by them.

Secondly, bourgeois revolutions can no longer be the same because there is a new need to fight external domination, which there was not previously. Thirdly, there is the possibility of what you might call syncopated development – ie, backwardness can actually be an advantage because you move faster. One example he gives of this is Japan, which he argues was able to leap over feudalism.

Of course, there was also Russia. Russia plays a big role in this ‘interactive’ formula, because it was a generally accepted idea that Russia’s democratic revolution might well spark off a socialist revolution in western Europe. But Kautsky also says that should this happen then you might well have accelerated development in Russia: because it is backward, it might proceed faster in the context of a socialist Europe than one of the more hidebound western European countries.

Finally, he talks a great deal about nationalist revolutions. He wants to make clear that countries such as China, Turkey and Russia represent a new development that is going to upset things, and he insists that the leaders of the movements in these countries are generally not nice people! But for Kautsky this does not alter the fact that they are weakening capitalism and are bringing an element of political unrest to the whole world – ie, he almost cheers on these movements because they are fighting against national oppression and also making life more difficult for the European powers.

When Kautsky polemicises against Bernstein and the ‘ethical’ colonialists, he says: “Colonial policy is based on the idea that only the European countries are capable of development – the men of other races are children of idiots or beasts of burden – and even socialists proceed on this assumption as soon as they want to pursue a policy of ethical colonial expansionism. But reality soon teaches them that our party’s tenet that ‘All men are equal’ is no mere figure of speech, but a very real force.”8

Kautsky is arguing that people are perfectly capable of fighting back and that they are actually doing so. He says: “When Marx and Engels wrote the Communist manifesto, they regarded only western Europe as the field of battle of the proletarian revolution, but today it has become the whole world. Today, the battles and the liberation struggle of the whole of labour and exploited humanity is being fought not only on the banks of the Spree and the Seine, but also on the Hudson and the Mississippi, the Neva and the Dardanelles, the Ganges and the Huangho.”9

Here I call attention to the Neva – the Russian river near Petersburg. Kautsky was including Russia in this idea of global unrest.

I want now to move on to the subject of imperialism, war and revolution. In this context I disagree with the idea that Kautsky’s ‘ultra-imperialism’ theory argued that war was not going to break out. This is not quite correct – for two reasons. The first is that super-imperialism is a new theory that Kautsky consciously and explicitly developed in a move away from what he had himself been saying earlier. So, it is Kautsky who is rethinking here and exploring a new concept. And it is once again Lenin who is defending the old orthodoxy. So when Lenin says that he is getting his definition of the tasks of the times from Kautsky, he was including imperialism. He was infuriated at the new concept of ultra-imperialism.

The second thing to be said on this is that Kautsky was not quite saying that ultra-imperialism is occurring right now, but that it is a possibility – and a strong one – because at some point the imperialists will wonder why they are shooting each other when they could easily get together and exploit everyone as a team. So it was not exactly a prophecy – more of a future possibility.

However, it was exactly this implication that made Lenin so furious. He argued that if you think peace is possible with imperialism then you are letting down the side and it is untrue anyway. But I do not want to get into this debate now, and so will return to our current topic.

We find in Kautsky’s The road to power the following ideas: firstly, that imperialism is the “last refuge of capitalism”.10 What he meant is that people are desperate; they see capitalism as a blind alley, but there is one possible great rallying idea – imperialism, where the country will go forth, make it in the world, bring benefits to humanity and do well for itself. But he says that, once this obviously nonsensical idea is blown apart, then that is it. He is also saying that the world is being completely divided up, and in this respect imperialism has reached its limits in that it has divided up the world. Secondly, imperialism leads to war. He thinks that, even though we are in situation where the ruling classes are afraid of war because they are afraid of revolution, guns will fire of themselves.

Another idea – and this links back to the idea of the bourgeois workers’ party concept – is that England has avoided social revolution because of the profits brought by India. As far as I can see, he does not mention the labour aristocracy, although I think he does discuss that elsewhere. But what he is saying here is just that England is exploiting India to make concessions, so that if India rebels that will mean crisis for England. This even leads him on to suggest that if the English workers do not rebel even after India has broken free, then they really are hopeless!

I am not going to try to evaluate these ideas written in about 1904. I merely wish to point out that Lenin’s ideas about imperialism as a reason why the revolution has not yet broken out is not a particularly new one. Further, both Lenin and Kautsky are looking to limit the damage and to find a reason why the English workers are not rising up.

To sum up all of what I have said, then, the prediction based on the growing class contradictions at home and abroad is that there is a period of upheaval and unrest coming up and it will probably end with the dictatorship of the proletariat in Europe.This is what Kautsky says in 1906 (I think he is talking about the Russian revolution): “What it promises to inaugurate is an era of new European revolutions that will lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat, paving the way for the establishment of a socialist society.”11

Tactics and the ‘new Lenin’

The reason that I have emphasised these themes in Kautsky is because Lenin emphasises them. But I now I wish to discuss the tactical conclusions. The two main tactical conclusions which Lenin draws from this era of upheaval are also contained in Kautsky, even if they are somewhat more ambiguous.

By the two tactics I mean the ones he is already going for in September 1914 – ie, turn the imperialist war into a civil war and get rid of opportunism in the new international.

For the first of these tactics, I wish to bring your attention to something which was very important to Lenin, and which he referred to on numerous occasions – the Basel manifesto of 1912. It was the last in a series of manifestos at Socialist International congresses. This was a special one called because of a diplomatic crisis. This manifesto is important for Lenin, who refers to it many times, and the reason I think he does so is that it was a solemn document which everybody signed up to, but few actually carried out.

Representatives of European social democracy at the Basel congress repeated their 1907 pledge to resolve to “use the political and economic crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”12

It is a little more evasive than maybe Lenin realised. Note how it says “to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist rule”. What he understood it to mean was that the parties were under the obligation of their own manifesto to turn the imperialist war into a civil war: ie, turn an unjust war into revolution. So he insists that this was a solemn, binding obligation which Kautsky had also signed up to. Furthermore, he believed that the Basel manifesto was squarely within the socialist tradition – another piece of ‘aggressive unoriginality’.

For Lenin it was “the summation of millions and millions of proclamations, articles, books and speeches of the socialists of all countries in the entire epoch of the Socialist International. To brush aside the manifesto means to brush aside the whole history of socialism”.13 Because he thought they were brushing this aside, he accused them of being traitors.

So that leads to the next tactical conclusion, which is to get rid of opportunism from the international parties. One of the things Lenin wanted to achieve by this was to get rid of Kautsky! So it is very ironic that he practically quotes Kautsky to explain his reasoning.

Firstly, he gives Kautsky full credit for developing and fighting the concept of opportunism. Even in 1920 Lenin is still saying that, although Kautsky becomes a traitor and an opportunist in 1914, he did yeoman work in fighting opportunism. Secondly, for Lenin the new social chauvinism – ie, people defending the national interest – is just the old opportunism reborn. (By the way, there is a slight problem with this assertion, in that the people who were the most rabid social patriots and social chauvinists tended to have been on the left in France, Germany and Russia.)

Lenin is saying that he understands what is going on in 1914 in terms of how he and Kautsky understood the old Second International – ie, opportunism versus orthodoxy. Lenin actually quotes Kautsky in underlining the need to split if opportunism becomes too dominant – Kautsky advised a split if opportunism became not just a mood or danger, but a tendency that threatened to take over. And then – this is quite amazing – he quotes Kautsky talking about changing the name of the party from ‘Social Democratic’ to ‘Communist’ in order to justify doing so himself. Kautsky had never called for a Third International and would never have wanted it, but the idea of it was inspired by things that Lenin got from Kautsky!

What I have tried to show is that between 1914 and 1916 Lenin operated on the basis of a revolutionary situation and global unrest that had certain features requiring new tactics. He got his understanding of these, and the assurance that it was the truth, from the old international and from Karl Kautsky.

I also pointed out that Lenin had rhetorical reasons for making this kind of assumption. If he had gone and rethought Marxism and said that everyone had been wrong for the last 30 years and people should follow him on that basis, then he would not have got very far. He did not – what he did was state that he was the one standing up for what all the others used to say.

Again I am not giving you my opinion, but Lenin’s – he might be right or he might be wrong. I happen to think he was right, but even if he was wrong, even if it was all just rhetorical and he did not really mean it, we should definitely take it very seriously when Lenin says that Kautsky and his The road to power is the most precise definition of the tasks of our times.

In Lenin’s mind, the job of a political leader was to take the broad definition of the historical situation and work out tactics that are both true to the principles and applied to the situation, which I think is what he meant when he talked about dialectics. At one point he says that Kautsky had taught us dialectics, but he completely failed to apply them himself when it came to 1914.

So did 1914 lead to a new Lenin? I think it did in one way. It led to Lenin putting himself on the line on a European scale. He was now thinking in terms of being a European leader with a European programme. To overstate it perhaps, ‘Lenin had to become Kautsky because Kautsky was not being Kautsky’.


  1. Paraphrasing from Lenin’s letter to Shlapnikov, October 27 1914.
  2. October 31 1914.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Quoted by Lenin in ‘Dead chauvinism and living socialism’:
  9. Ibid.
  13. VI Lenin Imperialist war: the struggle against social chauvinism and social pacifism.

National demonstration, Saturday October 24: troops out of Afghanistan now!

troops_out_nowStop the War, in conjunction with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the British Muslim Initiative, has called a demonstration in central London on Saturday 24 October to mark the eighth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan and demand the immediate withdrawal of all imperialist forces.

They are asking all supporters to start publicising the demonstration as widely as possible. Initial publicity is available to download here:

First of many: soldier Joe Glenton rebels against the war in Afghanistan

James Turley salutes a courageous act of rebellion

joe glentonLance corporal Joe Glenton has made a kind of history, by becoming the first enlisted soldier in the British army to openly rebel against the war in Afghanistan.

He now faces a court martial, having had his first preliminary hearing on August 3. His next is in a month, and he is expected to fight the charges of desertion against him – on the basis that the war itself was illegal by any relevant standard, and therefore a failure to report for duty in order to fight it is exempt from legal proscription. Last week, he publicly delivered an open letter to Gordon Brown, demanding a withdrawal from Afghanistan.1

Exactly how well this line of reasoning will work for him is difficult to discern precisely, though we should hardly imagine that an experienced imperial state such as resides in Westminster lacks a number of convenient (and conveniently finicky) get-out clauses for when aspersions are cast upon its legal virtues. Media response has been generally muted: The Guardian ran an interview with him on July 30, and brief items have appeared around on the BBC and in the Tory press, but the story has not (yet) blown up in any real sense.

Interestingly, the Daily Mail appears broadly sympathetic to Glenton’s case. His visit to 10 Downing Street was reported basically uncritically by that brutally reactionary rag (July 30). A poster on the Mail’s web forum – whose posts are accompanied with a small rendition of the EU flag with a hammer and sickle at its centre, no less – declares: “Lance corporal Joe Glenton is bravely refusing to return to Afghanistan because he has correctly identified this as an unjust war.”2 Not exactly the stuff of the Mail’s typically hysterical comment boxes.

Glenton joined the army in 2004, and was posted to Afghanistan in 2006. He was not a frontline soldier, but instead engaged in logistical operations. Much has been made of his traumatic experience around the crash of a Nimrod spy plane in 2006, which killed the 14 crew members aboard. His job had him “going up and down the road in a JCB spending a whole afternoon humping coffins around, two at a time, on a forklift truck … They weren’t even combat deaths – it was just the futility of it” (The Guardian July 30).

He deserted soon after it became clear that, in breach of internal guidelines on how much time soldiers spend on tour, he would be sent back in short order after returning home in 2007. He washed up in south Asia and ultimately Australia, before finally returning home a little over two years after first going awol.

The particular shape of his story, then, makes it remarkably difficult for the Tory press to ‘sell’ him as a coward – not only was he not directly in the line of fire: he now strides confidently back to the UK for a political battle. It also offers (limited) opportunities to attack Labour, whose leaders are, after all, the architects and prosecutors of British involvement in this war since the initial invasion almost eight years ago – though limited indeed as long as the ‘debate’ between the Tories and Labour is over how many helicopters are to be sent to Afghanistan.

It is a story which follows the classic human interest arc – hopeful beginnings betrayed by circumstances; a lapse into despondency; and, finally, the return from the brink to Do The Right Thing. (As if inviting Hollywood biopics, he even met his wife during his desertion.) Yet he is no doubt being perfectly honest – and we can take as good coin his assurances that he is not the only British soldier in Afghanistan having doubts about the affair.

After all, it is a luxury of British journalists that they can plausibly believe this war to be in any way succeeding, winnable or justifiable even on its own terms. It has been sold to us as the ‘good war’ from which we were distracted by the ‘bad’ adventure in Iraq, the ‘war that got away’ (of course, this idea is precisely a distraction from the same imperialist ideologues’ failure to properly account for Iraq). Yet the explicit aims of the Afghanistan war are equally nebulous – are troops there to install a western-style liberal-democratic regime? Is destroying the opium crop the main objective now? Nobody knows.

In the meantime, the puppet government in Kabul is happy to cut deals with every petty reactionary warlord it can in order to shore up opposition to the Taliban insurgency. Resistance to the occupation – even in its present form, fragmented and politically naive at best – stiffens with every civilian death. The reliance of the Americans in particular on aerial drone attacks, the last word in alienated and redundant slaughter, has drawn particular scorn from the local populace and anti-war activists around the world.

Glenton is concerned that British forces are simply pawns in the broader game of US foreign policy. He believes that the Afghan people’s “noble spirit” is unlikely to budge in this conflict, and that British troops should be deployed to defend “life and liberty”, rather than in wars that can only lead to the diminishing of both. In other words, he is obviously no communist – rather, he has inherited the basic ideology of the contemporary British army, and cannot square it with the reality of imperialist war. This should not surprise us: the armed forces are, after all, made up of volunteers at the present time, and spend an awful lot of resources shoring up precisely this kind of sense of the ‘civilising mission’ in their recruits.

Yet his case is extremely encouraging, nonetheless. The subjective side – the liberalish chauvinism of Glenton’s substantive statements – testifies to a society in which proletarian ideology suffers from debilitating weakness. The objective side remains to haunt bourgeois society – that soldiers are not simply robotic killing machines, but are themselves degraded and demoralised by the brutal orders they must carry out. They can be pushed past breaking point, as many thousands of American servicemen were during the Vietnam war, and become partisans of the anti-war movement.

Alone, as Joe Glenton is right now, many will worry that he will prove the first of many; that returning soldiers will join his cause without going awol; that the court martial he must now face may set a damaging and embarrassing precedent.

The Stop the War Coalition has briefly snapped out of its advancing decrepitude to offer a flurry of statements in support of Glenton. Indeed, on August 5 STWC was able to triumphantly announce that he had joined the coalition. The BBC website quotes Chris Nineham – a Socialist Workers Party ally of John Rees – to the effect that this is a “very significant moment”;3 BBC TV also carried a debate between the SWP’s Lindsey German and one major-general Patrick Cordingley. The latter, sounding impeccably officer-corps, complained rather petulantly that Glenton should have gone through the proper process of leaving the armed forces before raising his complaints; German, for her part, did not really argue anything at all, simply asserting her support of this minor mutiny. When the host asked her straight out whether a situation in which soldiers “and police officers” could just desert was desirable, the comrade was simply evasive.

This did the STWC no favours. A big part of effective anti-war work, going back a century or more, is agitation among the ranks. This is by no means easy in volunteer armies, of course, but the least that should be coming out of the anti-war movement – especially one headed by self-proclaimed revolutionary Marxists – is serious engagement with what exactly it is we want out of dissenting rank-and-file soldiers – and what we can do for them. This kind of dissent, if we (correctly) support it, calls into question the chain of command and institutions of authority of the standing army, and provokes the brass into clampdowns.

If – as seems likely – Joe Glenton is sent down for desertion, this will dissuade future soldiers from coming out against the war. Marxists must be prepared to fight for real democratic demands here – full trade union rights for soldiers would be a start, but we must really be making the case for the election of all officers and an end to all political proscriptions. The immediate and unconditional withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan should, at this point, go without saying.

Pen-pushers like Cordingley hide behind ‘process’, because it is designed precisely to make it difficult for dissident soldiers to take a political stand. It is another bureaucratic wall in the way of dissent. That Glenton is pressing on regardless is, if nothing else, a testament to personal courage – but if we want mutiny to spread, we have to treat the Afghanistan war as a political, not a moral, issue, and one tied up with the structure of the armed forces and the capitalist state.


  1. Widely available on the internet: e.g.