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Opinion

Some Notes On The Working Class And The Imperialist Wars

by Jan Myrdal

The First Comrade Naveen Babu Memorial Lecture, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi

10 February 2012.

First it is necessary to make a statement on whom I speak for. I am a communist but since close on sixty years a non-party communist. The reasons for that I have written about in several books. Thus I am not the spokesperson for any specific organization that can be made responsible for what I say.

I have just published a book mainly based on my visit to the guerrilla zone in Dandakaranya on the invitation of the CPI (Maoist): Red Star Over India: As the Wretched of the Earth are Rising. There I describe how, when we after a long march through the jungle came to the camp in Dandakaranya at night and had got our cup of tea, a group came walking out of the jungle. After some time I understood that it was the general secretary of the CPI (Maoist), Ganapathy and his comrades.

 

In the discussion with them that followed I tried to say something about our experience - positive and negative - of political work against war and imperialism during more than a century in a small imperialist country like Sweden.

As we at the end of our visit after sixteen days took a formal goodbye of our hosts I was also asked about the working class and the present situation in Europe.

At that meeting we more formally discussed the present situation in our part of the world. Deepening economic and social crisis, rising unemployment and strong - but mainly spontaneous - popular struggles. There are different organizations of new types often based on linkage through the net protesting against the destructive economic policies of the governments and transnational capital. We will see how strong they will prove to be against the present and the coming governmental onslaught. The loose organisational form is a defence against governmental repression but at the same time it makes conscious collective action impossible. Since half-a-century or so, since the beginning of at least a formal de-colonization, many solidarity organisations have been built up in our countries. They are of different types. Some have been proved to be of real and political importance. There are also different groups on the party level. They are often valiant but too often have sectarian drawbacks and as yet they do not reach the majority of the working class and its allies.

As to the traditional and official parties of the so called "Left", the social-democratic, labour and formerly communist parties they are unable even to formulate a traditional reformist policy against the crisis that hits the working class hard. Which is not strange as they in reality - as the former communist party in Sweden - are state financed and not member financed organisations? Thus they have become structurally unable to take the lead, participate in or even to more than give a slight lip service to the fight against the new imperialist wars. Also they have nearly made themselves wholly ideologically disarmed. Not only have they for economic reasons closed their newspapers, magazines and book stores they have also ended their theoretical studies; from the traditional reformist to the more or less revolutionary. Only here and there some members have individually and locally been able to keep study circles alive. The state financed cadres and the remaining members are thus ideologically vaguely feminist and at best - to use a German term -  Revoluzzer-like.

 

In some cases their party organisation has been infiltrated and partly taken over by imperialist groups. In the fifties this was typical of the work by CIA in the organisations of the "Socialist International". A recent example of this can be studied in Germany where the efficient Zionist and Israel-inspired faction in the youth movement - Bundesarbeitskreises Shalom der Linksjugend - last summer got control over the parliamentary group. They succeeded in getting work for the Palestinian people branded as anti-party and now this winter they enlarged this description of "anti-party behaviour" to include also support for the Syrian and Iranian people faced by imperialist war.

 

Also typical has been the way in which the once independent and honest, mainly liberal, peace organisations with a certain mass basis have either become emasculated or transformed to supporting what is called "humanitarian intervention".

 

If you read my book you will find that I there discuss this question throughout the whole text. That is not so strange. After all I have for the last seventy years both seen and in different ways taken part in the movements and thus personally experienced both the struggles often victorious and the defeats.

 

In the Dandakaranya jungle I lay in the night silently reciting to myself the best text that I know of that describes our situation:

 

That is the poem, "An die Nachgeborenen"  from the thirties that Bertold Brecht wrote in exile in Denmark. It is often translated to English as "To posterity". But the translations seem to me to miss - for our generations in the imperialist countries - the most valuable lines:

 

"Gingen wir doch, öfter als die Schuhe die Länder wechselnd

Durch die Kriege der Klassen, verzweifelt

Wenn da nur Unrecht war und keine Empörung."

 

The literal meaning would be: Though we walked through the wars between the classes - more often changing countries than shoes - despairing, as there was only injustice and no uprising.

 

The reasons for this tragic historical situation was something I thought about these nights as I lay awake in the sleeping bag beside the young adivasi comrades from the People's Liberation Guerrilla Army.

 

Why "only injustice and no uprising"? This is - and has in the political movements on the so called "left" been - a central question these last more than a hundred years. We in Europe have discussed it concretely in connection with the defeat of the revolution of 1848, the war between France and Prussia in 1870, the cruel repression after the defeat of the Commune 1871 and the outbreak of the First World War 1914.

 

The working class of the imperialist states has been proved unable to hinder these defeats and wars. In 1914 - 1918 the then mainly social-democratic European working class in their millions marched unresisting -  as calves to the slaughter-house -  to their death in Flanders.

 

This whole period in our countries from then to today has been characterized by demonstrations, economic and and political struggles. There have been great partial victories as the defeat of the Nazi-inspired reaction in Sweden during the thirties; the success of the Popular Front in France in 1936; the peace movement in the fifties that hindered then the United States planned nuclear war; the international solidarity movement that became a real hindrance for the United States imperialists in their war against the peoples of South East Asia fifty years ago. One should never forget or disparage what the people have achieved in the struggles.

 

But there have as we all know been decisive defeats. The rise to power by the Hitlerite forces in Germany, the victory of Franco in Spain, the change of colour and then the decay and dissolution of the Soviet Union and  the present working class inability to organize to hinder the new imperialist wars.

 

It is a historical fact that the working class and its allies in our imperialist countries have up to now been proved unable to rise up against injustice. They have in tragic fact either actively or by being silent given their support to the destructive policies of the ruling class.

 

But why is this? One answer is the one that was discussed by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Manabendra Nath Roy in the commission for the national and colonial question during the Second Congress of the Communist International in July 1920.

 

M. N. Roy held that: "In exploiting colonial masses, European imperialism is capable of giving a number of slops to the metropolitan proletariat."

 

Lenin of course saw that the problem existed. Not only had he himself worked intensively against the catastrophe when the international socialist movement collapsed facing the World War only some years back but as he said:

 

Comrade Quelch of the British Socialist Party spoke of this in our commission. He said that the rank-and-file British worker would consider it treasonable to help the enslaved nations in their uprisings against British rule.

 

But Lenin did not want to accept that this was the position of the "rank and file workers" in general but only that of the "workers' aristocracy" and that the real solution was to be found in the political responsibility of the new International to change it:

 

I would also like to emphasise the importance of revolutionary work by the Communist parties, not only in their own, but also in the colonial countries, and particularly among the troops employed by the exploiting nations to keep the colonial peoples in subjection."

 

With hindsight we know that the international communist movement that Lenin sought to develop was often heroic in the struggle for a better future for mankind but that it did not prove  able to fulfil the necessary militant solidarity with the struggle of the peoples in "the colonial and dependent countries" that he had found necessary.

 

Ho Chih Minh can thus be seen as having been historically correct in 1924 when he at the Fifth World Congress of the Communist International criticised the lack of real solidarity from the Communist parties of the imperial and colonial powers.

 

To understand the reasons for this and what it means for our common future it is first necessary to take some steps back to get an overview and then look closely.

 

Marx was careful to point out that he was not the first one to recognize that all history is the history of class struggle. Engels then when the first real studies of pre-history had been published drew the conclusion that this statement is true about all written history, i.e. it is true from the beginning of class society.

 

In this period of class societies whether you look at the Roman Empire or Mogul society or the gilded age in the United States after the civil war or at India today you see classes struggling. Even if you want to analyze the official society of a harsh fascist dictatorship like that of Nazi Germany where not only communist and socialist but also liberal tendencies are forbidden and repressed, you will find how class struggle determines its policies. On all levels. Even the prison guards in the concentration camps have class interests in contradiction to the rulers.

 

What Marx then saw was that the rise of capitalism and the victory of the bourgeoisie created a growing class of "free" wage earners, proletarians who had nowhere to go but up. Their struggle thus in the long run became a struggle against the very concept of the society created by the bourgeoisie.

 

This radical challenge in Europe began to be formulated between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries during a series of very violent and cruel wars against the feudal authorities by poor peasants. The ideology they formed out of their own national and religious roots in their struggles closely resembles that of the Taiping peasant revolutionaries in China during the nineteenth century. That is not strange. Similar struggles breed similar ideologies.

 

I mentioned this in my book also in connection with the ideological development during the Naxalite struggle in India; the general Marxist, Maoist roots and the continual honing of the theory through the revolutionary practice.

 

For Friedrich Engels these European peasant wars five hundred years ago were pre-revolutionary; doomed to failure. I am not so sure. Of course they had limited aims if they are compared with those of the working class of today but in Sweden and in Switzerland they were rather victorious and this shaped these societies in a way very different from that of continental Europe in general.

 

It is as Hegel pointed out not possible to jump out of one's own time. It would be as trying to run away from one's shadow. But it is possible to see the present in perspective, to ascertain the age of the time.

 

Marx never wrote prescriptions for the future. What more is, he did not - as Engels pointed out - write definitions; he wrote developments. If we go back to a certain stage in history, say Europe 1848 or India 1944 we can describe what happened and also (with some effort) why. Afterwards we can point to the reasons. But that specific train of events at the time was not determined, unavoidable or, to put it in religious terms, pre-ordained. At the time a multitude of developments inside the then frame of possibilities were open. Or to put it in another way: there is no great book in heaven where everything is written. Man makes himself and continuously shapes his history. (And Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao were not" inspired", they wrote and worked out of the possibilities of their time.)

 

History that, which has happened, is continuously being reappraised. It might be an apocryphal story that Zhou Enlai when asked about the French revolution answered that it was too early to comment. I ought to have asked him but never did. Though he was right of course.

 

In the same way there is no end to history (except that there can be an end to humanity as there surely is an end to my own life.) We might say that socialism could be the end of pre-history and the beginning of conscious history. But that would not be the great harmony. Such a continuum, a lasting state of harmony, cannot exist. Class conflict would disappear with classes, but as Mao pointed out conflicts would continue. Even in ten thousand years.

 

This is not a deviation from the subject. It is a way of getting closer to the answers. Because what is the experience of the working class and its allies during this present historical period? and what wars are we talking of?

 

The officially mighty Second International (that accurately had described the coming war in its extraordinary Congress in Basel in 1912) collapsed as built of cards when the imperialist war became a reality in 1914. Despite the decades of revolutionary rhetoric the leading cadres had nearly to a man been co-opted up to the ruling class and the masses lulled to apathy by the popular culture in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Their wages for that were mass deaths.

 

And in practice M. N. Roy and "Comrade Quelch of the British Socialist Party" even after that catastrophe seem to have had their case proven by what happened in Hitlerite Germany and then later in the large French Communist Party during the post-World War II decolonisation in North Africa.

 

Look at Saar! On January 13 1935 the people of Saar - which was under League of Nations mandate since 1920 - voted. The elections were under international supervision. The choice for the people was between immediate reunion with Germany or a continuation as an independent League of Nations mandate.

 

Ever since Hitler's Machtübernahme as Reichskanzler on January 30, 1933 trade unionists, socialists, communists, intellectuals and Jews had fled over the border to Saar from the mounting terror in the new Germany, the Third Reich.

 

The working class parties in the Saar were not weak. The electorate was an informed one. The rising wave of that Nazi terror in Germany was well-known. The concentration camps, the murders during "the night of long knives" in June 1934, the anti-Semitic pogroms, all were known. Still on January 13, 1935 in free and internationally supervised elections 90.3% of the people of the Saar voted for Hitler.

 

The reason was not some strange Teutonic nationalism. It was a simple economic one. By printing money and embarking on a rapid re-armament for a coming war the government of Hitler had decreased unemployment in Germany from 26.3% in 1933 to 14.9% in 1934. (As the war preparations went on, the number of unemployed continued falling: 11.6% in 1935, 8.3% in 1936, 4.6% in 1937, 2.1% in 1938.) The working class and its allies supported Hitler -  even if many being former communists and socialists were a little doubtful -  because Germany was beginning to experience full employment and the social security and labour protection regulations became close to those of the Social Democratic Scandinavian countries.

 

Mark you, for those who resisted the Nazis among communists and socialists (or Liberals and Christians) and for Jews whatever their social beliefs and standing, the terror was cruel. But if one kept silent and just went along as usual then life was better in the Third Reich than before and both children and parents had the possibility of good and well organized vacations.

 

Of course for political reasons we did not write this at that time. (We during the war even kept the fiction that the Austria that had been a bastion for virulent Nazis had been an "occupied country".)

 

But the results of the election in Saar were, as I myself remember, a shock to people like my parents and other social democrats. And the Saar election determined then both the change in the Comintern and the Soviet foreign policy. In the Comintern it took a struggle to change the former sectarian policy that had led to the defeat in Germany. Magazines such as "Geganangriff" in Prague that up to then had written as if the revolution in Germany was near and even the paramilitary "SA", the Nazi party Sturmabteilung, was going to become anti-Hitler now published more realistic articles.

 

The Soviet foreign policy changed course in face of the threat from Nazi Germany. Pierre Laval was invited to Moscow and on May 2, 1935, France and the USSR concluded the pact of mutual assistance. As the French press reported he spoke up against the then purely anti-military strategy of the French party,  "M. Stalin understands and fully approves the French policy of national defense".

 

We all know that the attempt to form a broad anti-fascist front against the "aggressor states, Germany, Italy, Japan" failed. That was not proof of a lack of will from the governments of Great Britain, France; on the contrary their main interest was appeasement of these, their rivals, in order to unleash Hitler - and them - in a war against the Soviet Union. But behind that failure was the real failure to mobilize the working class in these imperialistic states for a common front.

 

You can see the reason for that political short sightedness by the weak support among the British working class for the independence of India; the general popular feeling there was as that in France for Algerian independence a generation later.

 

Too large a section of the working class in the "democratic" imperial countries had become convinced that colonialism gave them material gains. But worse was to come. During the Second World War, the German authorities saw to it that even ordinary soldiers could get direct benefit of individual plunder. Hermann Goering made a special point of this. Through the ordinary post, the soldiers in the occupied countries could send home what they had been able to get their hands on from the subjugated people. At the same time, the German state exploited the occupied countries and gave a small portion of the proceeds directly to the German people. As the occupied countries around Germany sunk to poverty and starvation the German people lived bet