[Marxism] Ken Macleod on the morality of foreign policy
farmelantj at juno.com
Wed Feb 11 13:56:45 MST 2004
Monday, February 02, 2004
Posted 2:06 PM by Ken
Empires and the Modern Prince
The delegates brandish their weapons.
(Note, possibly apocryphal, from the record of the Baku Congress of the
Peoples of the East)
Norman Geras wonders about the socialist or Marxist antiwar left:
[...] a very large segment of the political constituency I'm talking
not only opposed the Iraq war, but also opposed the intervention in
Afghanistan before that, and in Kosovo before that, and so on back to the
first Gulf War that evicted Saddam's armies from Kuwait. [...] America,
foremost representative of global capitalism, on one side, and (speaking
loosely) regimes and movements of an utterly ghastly kind politically, on
the other - those are two common poles throughout. [...] Why does this
particular thematic combination lead so many to come down each time on
side they do - morally and politically, in my own view, the wrong side?
I'm sure the question is rhetorical, but if he does find it something of
puzzle, I'm surprised at his surprise. Most of the groups he refers to
back to Lenin, and whether they do so via Trotsky or via Stalin, one of
their most basic positions is that in any conflict between an advanced
capitalist country (an imperialist country, as Lenin would have it) and a
backward country (a colonial, semi-colonial, or dependent country, as
would have it) they will back the backward country regardless of the
of its regime. This position is a consequence of Lenin's theory of
imperialism. If imperialism is what that theory says it is - a monstrous
octopus choking more than half the life out of more than half the world -
then (almost) anything that weakens it is in the interests of the working
class and of progress, (almost) regardless of how reactionary or anti-
working-class imperialism's opponent may be.
This was, ironically, why some on the British left supported the Afghan
mujahedin - they regarded the Soviet Union as an imperialist power, and
muj as a national liberation movement. Beyond that they had few illusions
about the muj. If you can - 'critically', of course - support the muj
against the Russians, why not the Taliban (and some of the very same muj)
against the Americans and their allies?
The fact is that most of the nationalist and anti-imperialist regimes or
movements that most of the Marxist left has supported, or sided with, or
least not sided against, over the years have been denounced at the time
utterly ghastly politically: the 'murderous' Mau Mau, the 'fascist' EOKA,
the 'Stalinist' NLF, the 'terrorist' ZANU, the 'Soviet-backed' MPLA, and
on and on and on. Even movements like the ANC that had a lot of liberal
support used terrorist, or other terrible, tactics. Remember the Pretoria
police station bombing? The tyres and the petrol? The Algerian FLN's cafe
bombings in Battle of Algiers? The same goes for regimes and dictators.
today would defend the Suez adventure, but at the time it was presented
a war of defence against Nasser, 'the new Hitler'. The Falklands War was
supported by most of the Labour Party as an anti-fascist war of
but the Marxist left almost in its entirety opposed it and, likewise
in its entirety, sided with Argentina despite being accused of 'backing a
I'm not concerned here with whether the support was correct or not. My
point is that the position taken today by the Communist Party and the
Trotskyists is for them nothing new. The precedents go back to the 1920s,
if not before. The internationalists in the Second International
the racist and religious Boers against the Brits, as did some liberals.
Lenin's Soviet Russia had cordial relations, as a state, with the anti-
communist regime of Kemal, and with the Emir of Afghanistan. It also
to play off German imperialism against the other imperialisms, at
Under Lenin's successors the list, as is known, lengthened considerably.
This seems cynical, but it's exactly the same approach as that of
traditional diplomacy and foreign policy, recently exemplified by the
Western ruling classes in the Cold War. They regarded Communism in much
same way as the Leninists regarded imperialism, and backed (almost) any
regime or movement that weakened it (almost) regardless of how unpleasant
that regime or movement might otherwise be. When a Vietnamese invasion
overthrew the Khmer Rouge, did the US or UK governments waste a moment in
weighing the morality of the intervention? They did not. They set about
supporting the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, diplomatically and
against Vietnam. The same considerations apply to the War on Terrorism.
Wherethefucksthatistan is boiling its Islamists alive, bully for
Wherethefucksthatistan, and warm handshakes and handouts for His
Whatevereyev, President for Life of Wherethefucksthatistan, a man we can
business with and our son of a bitch.
The great scandal of Lenin was that he taught realpolitik to the lower
classes and backward peoples. If the working class was ever to become a
ruling class it had better start thinking like one, and for a ruling
there are no rules. There is only the struggle to get and keep power.
is not to say that the Leninists and the imperialists are without moral
feelings. Individually they are for the most part perfectly normal. Their
compassion for their enemies' victims is absolutely genuine. So is their
outrage at their enemies' moral failings and blind spots. In the 1980s I
found it very difficult to regard supporters of the Chinese Communists'
consistently anti-Soviet international policies as anything but
and scabs; but they were merely applying the same criteria as I was, to a
different analysis of the world; and their indignation at my callous
calculations and selective sympathies was just as real. I had the same
of arguments with Trotskyists who supported the muj.
'How can you ...?' 'How can you ...?'
Morality has very little to do with choosing sides. It can tell us that a
given act is dreadful, but it can't tell us whether to say, 'This is
dreadful, therefore ...' or 'This is dreadful, but ...' We still often
believe that we oppose our enemies because of their crimes, and support
allies despite their crimes. I wouldn't be surprised if Margaret Thatcher
was quite sincere in condemning ZAPU as a terrorist organization because
shot down a civilian airliner, and in supporting one of the mujahedin
factions, despite the fact that it had deliberately blown up a civilian
airliner. Sometimes our moral justifications can blunt our moral sense.
Think of the incendiary bombings of Germany and Japan. Suppose they were
military necessity. If so, better to accept that what 'our side' is doing
is wrong and do it anyway than to persuade ourselves it is right because
is in a just cause.
(The writings of a great amoralist - a de Sade, a Stirner, a Nietzsche -
can inspire a handful of murders in two centuries. Over the same period,
the writings of a great moral philosopher - an Aquinas, a Kant, a
a Mill - can justify, if not indeed incite, the deaths of millions in
wars and just revolutions. Morality is an immensely dangerous and
destructive force, which must be restrained by the strongest human
and sympathies if it is not to break all the bonds of society.)
Morality is real. Morality is ideology. It is the heat given off by the
workings of quite different machinery. In measuring the heat while
the mechanism - in making a moral case for or against a particular war,
example - the moral philosopher reasons 'consciously indeed, but with a
false consciousness'. The screams of those caught in the machinery
unabated. They cry to heaven. It is only in what Locke called the 'appeal
to heaven' - the clash of arms - that anyone (apart from, of course,
'pacifists, Quakers and other bourgeois fools' as someone said, who
in 'pacifist-Quaker-vegetarian prattle about the sanctity of human life',
as someone else said) sees a hope that some day the machinery can be made
to stop, and the screams to cease. That hope itself is the machines'
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