Arguing against militarism and imperialism - a heterodox socialist reply to Tom O'Lincoln with a few ideas about dialectical method

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Wed Jul 16 08:28:42 MDT 2003


Hi Tom,

Thanks very much for your response and the data. When I am saying that
military policy depends on the foreign policy adopted through political
processes, and that a great range of options exists with regard to military
expenditure, I am trying to get away from schematism, inevitabilism and
mechanical determinism. I am trying to say, militarisation is not inevitable
in the sense of the sunrise and sunset, rather it is the product of
political choices which can be influenced by political parties, lobbying,
demonstrations, cogent argument and voting strategies in which ordinary
people are active subjects. Of course, you can say, following Lenin, that
imperialist foreign policy leading to militarisation has its roots in the
search for markets, extra profits and intercapitalist competition on a world
scale, which make imperialist ideology and practice, the quest for
territorial expansion and influence, inevitable and necessary. But Lenin
also says, make a specific analysis of the specific situation, and see what
possibilities and options you have for shifting the situation in your own
favour, how the "active subject" can have an effect through argumentation,
organisation and agitation, and to do that, you have to get away from
intellectual schematism, inevitabilism and mechanical determinism. If you
look at the data, for instance, you find that in 1999-2000, Australia
allocated about 7.6 percent of government expenditure to military
expenditure, which was about 1.7 percent of GDP, as against 3.5 percent of
government expenditure in New Zealand (1 percent of GDP). Looking at the
international comparisons and then taking into consideration the specific
situation of different countries, it is easy to establish that there are no
"inevitable laws" determining the total amount of military expenditure. Of
course, if your total government budget is greater, you can spend more
relative to national income (in New Zealand, Labour sold off a lot of
taxpayers's assets, in which case the budgets shrink, and you can spend
less, relative to national income, unless you borrow more). You get get
these figures from e.g. the World Bank's World Development Indicators and
the UN Human Development Report. See also the Swedish SIPRI site
(http://first.sipri.org/index.php).

I will try to respond briefly to some of your comments:

YOU:

I think the issue is posed differently. The Australian ruling class takes
its imperialist role for granted. The choice in their minds is between an
aggressive imperialist policy on the cheap, by relying on the American
alliance; or an aggressive independent imperialist policy which costs the
taxpayers more. They are basically sticking by the former, but have edged a
bit towards the latter pole more recently, which is the significance of the
White Paper.

ME:

I think this is too simple. The rulers of Australia (as described by John
Pilger for example) take into account far more than that, they have to make
a political assessment of the overall situation and a range of political and
economic interests. Obviously I cannot specify from here, how they think,
you are in a better position to specify that. The weapons dealers love the
multiplication of perceptions of risks and threats, because then they can
sell more weapons. One way to analyse this, is to look at biographical and
personal information about the Australian elite, to see how they think and
act. Your argument leads to the conclusion that the Australian elite is
always imperialist and that we can do nothing about it beyond saying what is
in the working class interest, but, a more specific analysis of the problem
may reveal that there is a margin of options and choices where conscious
intervention may be able to cause policy changes and affect outcomes. If
this is all reformist, then we will just have to wait until the day of the
revolution, but a socialist like me does not want to hang around waiting
until that happens, he wants to find the mediations and transitions towards
that goal, the socialist transformation of society. This is, if you like, a
Leninist approach rather than an Anton Pannekoek approach to political
processes.

You wrote:

I think the first [political] step is political: to challenge the whole idea
of the capitalist "national interest".

Me:

Again, I believe this is too abstract and schematic, and if you argue like
this, then you are not in a position to understand national culture and
national ideology, which is Gary's speciality. (1) Most Australians do have
some national identification, I do not mean just passports, I mean an
affinity or love for their country, patriotism and the lifestyle it offers,
which manifests itself in all sorts of ways, for example, supporting the
Australian cricket team or the Australian rugby team, appreciating the
outback and wildlife etc. etc. This affinity does not even have to be
political, it may only be a defence of the validity and desirability of the
Australian lifestyle, of "Aussie rules". If they did not have that, then
they would not even want to live in Australia probably. Now, it is precisely
BECAUSE this affinity exists, that politicians can utilise this in various
ways, trying to shape up the expression of this feeling in ways which
complement the political project which they themselves favour. (2) the
Australian elite is not monolithic, nor can it be, because, as Marx
indicates, capitalist society features three basic linked forms of
competition from the point of view of class structuration: competition
between capitalists; competition between capitalists and workers (the
specific modes of class conflict); and competition between workers. From
this follows the most primitive rule of politics Marx specified: divide the
capitalists, unite the workers, and support the struggle of the workers
against the capitalists rather than the other way round. Precisely because
of (1) and (2), "national interests", "national culture" and "national
ideology" are not monolithic, and more importantly, they do not have their
source in any particular social class, rather, sources of nationalism can be
found in all social classes or fractions of those social classes. That is
why the problem is so difficult. This is particularly true in settler
capitalism of which Australia is an example, where workers emigrated to make
a new life based on wage labour or some self-employed activity. What does
this mean politically ? Well, it affects how specifically you go about
attacking nationalISM, how you go about arguing about real or imputed
national interests, how you go about arguing against militarisation, in a
context where the bourgeoisie seeks to maximise the free mobility of capital
and restrict the mobility of labour to those paths which are in its
interest. Dialectically speaking, you may be able to mobilise national
feeling AGAINST militarism, AGAINST imperialist adventures, AGAINST
bombastic military sabre-rattling. If you just go around saying, "there is
no national interest", "any national feeling is wrong", "national
identification is a fiction", then not only is this schematic, there would
be few people who would actually believe you are feel an affinity with what
you have to say. Why do you think the Green Party, which agitates against
the multinational corporations ripping off Australians, gets a hearing ? It
is precisely because Australians feel "interpellated" by that (to use an old
Althusserian term) whereas you, arguing rigorously against the very concept
of national affinities as such, seem to be placed outside Australian culture
altogether. Not because you are ultimately wrong at some level of objective
analysis of the world, but because you are not there, where the real
consciousness of Australians is at. You may sneer at the Greens as "red gone
rotten" but they get a hearing that you do not. Whereas, dialectically, you
can actually use and appeal to the positive sides of Australian national
culture, the "better side of Australians", against militarisation and
against imperialist adventures, and this is particularly important since the
higher classes do most of the publishing and media work anyhow. Now you may
object to me, well, Lenin did not say this, this is all liberal or fascist
nonsense, and therefore you are wrong. However, look specifically at the
debate between Luxemburg and Lenin about nations and nationalism. Lenin
comes out saying, "I insist strongly and completely on the right of nations
to self-determination". And Luxemburg says, "but if you are Marxist, you
cannot say that, because we believe that the working class has no country
and we have to be opposed to every form of national identification". And
Lenin says, "don't be silly, why would you have an inter-national then in
the first place, which seeks to organise workers from different nations ? I
am not an academic, I am a politician, I have to deal with the real national
sentiment of national groups, I have to deal with Czarist imperialism, I
have to find every possible cultural, political and ideological source of
mobilisation against Czarist imperialism, and therefore I do argue for the
right of nations to self-determination, distinguishing between the national
feeling of the oppressors and the national feeling of the oppressed." And
Luxemburg says, "this is just an opportunist scam, you are just playing on
national feeling to suit your own purpose." And Lenin says, "no it is not an
opportunist scam, because my party supports the complete and principled
right of nations within the Czarist empire to secede, and form their own
state, the only thing is, we do not actually recommend this, we recommend
federation in a socialist commonwealth as more advantageous for everybody,
ultimately I agree with you about that, I have just introduced a few
mediations in the argument based on a specific analysis of the specific
situation." Fact was, the class characetristics of many of these
nationalities in the Czarist empire weren't even proletarian. What I am
suggesting is simply that, given a relatively low level of politically
articulated class consciousness, you may need to think about the
contradictions of the national feeling of the oppressors and the national
feeling of the oppressed WITHIN Australia as a source of arguments against
imperialism and militarism. You may have to distinguish between "our
Australia" and "their Australia". Now you reply to this might be, this is
sacrilege and profanity, aren't we then talking about fascism, national
socialism, Nazism ? I do not think so necessarily at all, it just depends on
the exact way you go about this, as Lenin recommends, make a specific
analysis of the specific situation. I can put the matter in yet another way,
in relation to the immigration issue: Dutch people frequently complain
against the refusal of immigrants to "integrate", or, as a minimum, to learn
Dutch language and show some appreciation of Dutch culture. You can, being
radical and orthodox, of course dismiss this attitude as all being just pure
racism. This is probably true in 1/3 or 1/2 of the cases, yes. The fact of
the matter is, however, that many people who are not racist, understand that
language is a communication tool, and no matter what you position in society
is or what your interests are, if you do not speak the language you are
worse off as a human being, in fact, you disadvantage yourself, and you can
also disadvantage yourself too in other ways, through dogmatic insistence on
your unique cultural identity. If you have opted to live in Holland, then
there is a sense in which you must adjust in some ways to the country you
live in, that is reasonable. And for the rest, we are all human beings, and
if we insist on ethnic distinctions where they do not apply, we are not
helping our own case. There are of course some Marxists who say no, no
adjustment does need to be made, everybody has the right to be "completely
different" to the ways and customs of the country in which they live. But
this is an anarchist or pettybourgeois argument, it is not an argument of
the working class majority, the working class says people DO have to
cooperate in some basic sense, and they DO cooperate anyhow, even if they
think that they don't. Precisely because the working class DOES think this,
the argument centres on the specific ways of cooperation, and here of course
fascist, racist, liberal, socialist and all sorts of other arguments ARE
possible. We can have of course some abstract debate about "cultural norms"
but this is ideology, it is not a specific discussion about specific legal
rights, specific forms of cooperation, specific human rights, specific forms
of adjustment, and so forth. The total political impotence of the
"globalisation debate" consists precisely in abstracting from specifics and
abstracting from national peculiarities, to the point where the argument can
go any old which way, and no specific political implications can be arrived
at for what we really have to do in the place that we actually live and that
we can actually have an effect on. Whereas a real Marxist, a real socialist,
knows the culture of his own country like the back of his hand, and can make
specific political interventions which hit the "nerve centres" of the
discussion in their own society, which they know, rather than refer to
abstract concepts "in general". To conclude, general disquisitions about
opposing the idea of a "capitalist national interest" are of no use
whatseover, and may indeed play into the hands of the corporations and the
Australian elite, rather than advance the workers' political movement.

I said:

>>Governments are not infrequently conned into buying military hardware
which they do not even need<<

You reply:

This is just the sort of argument we should avoid. I'm not in favour of the
imperialists buying weapons they DO need.

My reply:

Again you argument is far too general, because in implying that the
imperialists DO need weapons, you have already conceded part of their
argument. The revolutionary Marxist argument is different from what you
think, it is saying, they DO HAVE WEAPONS ALREADY and use them in ways which
disadvantage the working classes on the basis of policies which are
hypocritical and arbitrary. Your concession to the bourgeoisie begs the
question, how many weapons, what kind, and all sorts of other issues. For
real socialists, real Marxists, this is important, because we want to REDUCE
militarisation and WEAKEN imperialism.  I think that even at the most
elementary level, you are making mistakes, because your approach is too
general. In the Dutch Socialist Party, we do not do this, specific arguments
are made about specific controversies which  focus the interests of the
Dutch working class (and the productive, progressive sectors of the middle
class) in specific cases. The duty of the intellectuals is only to ensure,
that this process occurs consistently and in a non-arbitrary fashion, and
thus, the intellectuals try to specify through argument and analysis what
the theoretical basis of the political interventions is, ensuring political
integrity will be maintained. That is their role, but flaunting abstract
theory onto the world and calling that politics is just nonsense, that is
not how it works.

I wrote:

>>Are you suggesting that leaving the military decisions to the US
government, (imperialist military centralisation) would promote greater
geopolitical stability?<<

You replied:

No. We should take them out of the hands of ALL the imperialists - not just
transfer them from the hands of George Bush to the hands of John Howard.

My answer:

This is fine and good and laudatory, I agree with you. But I am making an
argument which can appeal to the more progressive sectors of the middle
class and the haute bourgeoisie. The more political controversy that can be
created among the middle classes and the haute bourgeoisie, the better it is
for us. And if I can make a really good case for saying that military
centralisation DOES NOT promote geopolitical stability, then I can get a
large audience across the planet. I am not saying that I personally am in
the position where I can make this argument stick and develop it, other can
do it better than I can, but it is just an idea which you should not dismiss
dogmatically on the ground of blanket opposition to imperialism. Our common
opposition to imperialism is clear, it is fine and good, the next question
is how specifically we go about arguing this, who is arguing it, what the
position of these people is, and what sort of argument is appropriate to
their position. The Marxist Nazis condemn people personally because of their
class background etc. but we do not operate like that. We have a developed
idea of political class conciousness, not a kindergarten one.

I wrote:

>>The US Government cannot even run a decent presidential election<<

You replied:

As if there were any "decent" elections under capitalism. In this country
Howard formed a government in 1998 with a minority of the popular vote.

I answer:

But again you discount a powerful argument against militarism. I realise
that the International Socialists have never been strong on democratic
principles, they show this in their own organisation, where people are
ruthlessly expelled. But for more sensible socialists, who practice good
democracy and good party culture, the fact that decisions are made to
increase military expenditure enormously, on the basis of decision-making
which cannot be called democratic in any shape or form, is a powerful
argument to win people on our side. Democracy is on our side, not on their
side, because people can see even at a simple level, that increasing
military expenditure undemocratically in a context of rising government
debts, will mean, apart from the increasing threat of war in which their
sons and daughters could be killed, that their Tax bill MUST go up and their
real income MUST decline in order to pay for all this. And so they have a
vested interest in democratic practices which reduce militarism.

I said:

>>many Americans don't vote

You said:

Who can blame them. They wouldn't vote here if it wasn't compulsory. Some
people here lament that Australians don't study the party policies -- but
why should they, the politicians always rat on the policies after the
election.

My answer:

This is a sulky, losers argument, which doesn't surprise me in the light of
the lack of internal democracy in the International Socialist tendency. The
fact is that voting does not take much time, and indicates a political
interest at the most elemenatry level. If you cannot get people to vote, you
cannot get them to do anything much at all politically. We, in the Dutch
Socialist Party, do not argue like you do. We are the real democrats, our
opponents are not. We seek to mobilise and activate ordinary people in
public politics, get them to take a political interest, our opponents do
not, or very little. And our commitment to democracy will win increasing
layers of the working class to our side, because our analysis is that the
bourgeoisie is increasingly compelled to restrict democracy, and do deals
behind closed doors, to substitute corporate principles for democratic
principles in the political field. And therefore, our consistent and
resolute defence of democracy reclaims all the terrain which the bourgeoisie
gradually abandons as it seeks ever more despotic methods to sustain the
rule of capital. And if our defence of democracy is to be indeed resolute
and consistent, we cannot very well be uncritical of people who do not
bother to vote at the most elementary level, in general elections, council
elections and so forth. We favour a democratic socialism, and we cannot very
well say to people now ""don't bother to vote" and then spout rhetoric about
democratic socialism. For you, democracy is maybe a bourgeois method for
disorganisation, a luxury, icing on the cake, but we in the Dutch Socialist
Party take democracy seriously because we want to reclaim democracy for the
working class. And we can prove historically, that the European proletariat
took a leading role in the establishment of popular democracy, it was ours,
it is ours, and it should be ours, even if the corporates become
increasingly anti-democratic and hostile to government ""meddling" in
corporate affairs.

You say:

>>the average understanding of the American voter of international issues is
abysmal .  By comparison, the level of political awareness is much higher in
many other countries.<<

You reply:

Like the Netherlands I suppose. Well I know something about the imperialist
history of the Netherlands in the East Indies. As brutal as any.

My answer:

Your answer is again very schematic and general. The level of understanding
of international issues in Holland is indeed, on average, higher than in the
USA. I do not say it is a correct understanding necessarily, but it is
higher. This is because Holland is a small country which has always
specialised in various forms of trade (Dutch mercantile capitalism is one of
the birthplaces of modern Western capitalism). I am not being prejudiced
against Americans here, I am stating facts. A while ago, some leftwing or
liberal American intellectual (I forget who) congratulated CNN for its
coverage of international events. Now you and me may laugh about this,
because we disagree with content, but what the guy actually said was, that
without CNN, great masses of Americans would not even have a clue about
anything that is actually happening internationally, because they are just
much more focused on local events. And if you do specific surveys which test
the political knowledge of Americans about overseas events and political
systems, then you will discover that this is a reality. At the start of the
war with Iraq, I already raised a challenge to American social scientists to
survey the American population and find out how many Americans could locate
Iraq on a map, how many could specify the borders of Iraq, and how many
could specify its basic geographic features.
Bush himself did not know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia. I do
not know if they have done it, but I can tell you now that the survey data,
if intelligently and objectively gathered, would surprise you about what
people really do not know. Of course, through the media coverage they now
know more, but that is "after the fact", the point is, the US Government
committed Americans to a war with cowboy arguments, even although most
Americans are unaware of the history of foreign policy of the US Government
towards Iraq and in many cases would not even know where Iraq is, or what
the real interest of the USA in this matter is, never mind whether the
foreign policy pursued will promote American life. I am not saying this for
a joke, but because I have a vested interest in promoting international
political understanding, whereas the elites have a vested interest in just
telling part of the story or no story at all. Nobody denies the history and
role of Dutch imperialism, I have already mentioned it on this list before,
but generalities will not suffice. What is interesting about the recent
celebrations of the anniversary of the Dutch East India Company, is the
specific cultural consciousness with which these celebrations are carried
out, which you must understand, in order to make a specific intervention in
the debates about imperialism.

I said:

>>You are implying that the interests of Australian voters and taxpayers, or
even just the Australian government, are identical to the US government, but
that is not the case at all<<

You said:

Come now. My starting point has always been that Australian capitalism has
its own distinct imperialist interests; the issue is how they pursue them.
As for the taxpayers, well the workers among them have no common interest
with either.

My answer:

I haven't come at all, and I do not take back my argument, because what you
said previously could be construed precisely as having that implication, an
implication which is welcome to the State Department and Pentagon. Again you
are engaging in sociological class schematism. If Australian imperialism has
its own distinct interests, then that is a basis for fomenting more
contradictions within the imperialist camp, and here you do yourself out of
a wealth of arguments by means of political schematism. Taxation is a
sensitive issue, and it can be mobilised against imperialism and militarism.
Just because Tom O'Lincoln claims that this tactic does not respect the
theoretical definition of the working class and its interests, does not mean
that we cannot use that argument, provided that we specify correctly and
appropriately what our specific stance is.

I said:

>>The only rational kernel in your argument would be, that it is in fact
IMPOSSIBLE for Australia to have an independent foreign policy<<

You reply:

Not at all. It could have one under capitalism, in which case it would be
equally reactionary and much more costly. Of course it could also have one
in a post-capitalist framework, but to get there we have to start by
opposing the capitalist "national interest".

My answer:

But you have not even proved that it would be more costly, it is schematism,
just as your opposition to the capitalist "national interest" is schematic
and convinces nobody who is anywhere intelligently involved in real
political activity.

I said:

>>I thought you were on the side of the working class<<

You reply:

Yes, and the interests of the working class do not coincide EITHER with a
pro-American policy OR with an independent imperialism.

My answer:

Yes, now you have established a perfectly correct abstract, tautological
truth. The point, however, is to PROVE this with facts and arguments which
plug into the sensibilities of Australian culture, rather than simply assert
it as a dogma. That is what I have tried to talk about in this mail,
referring to some ways of thinking which might help you out of schematism
and to a specific analysis of the specific situation, in a way which
mobilises people, starting from where they are really at in their lives and
their thinking. Of course, you have to pick the people you want to argue
with, and it is in this sense that Lenin talks about the political vanguard,
or, in modern terminology, the "political class".

Comradely,

Jurriaan








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