Socialists and War
The SPGB has opposed all wars. To date my view is that every war the UK has been involved in since WW2 has been unjust. With hindsight do you still stand by your position in the knowledge of what the Nazis did in the holocaust? I’m not trying to catch you out as I find the party interesting but I would just like to know your views on this and whether you think it is ever right to intervene if it is to prevent genocide. Or does it not prevent it?
Simon O’Connor, (by email)
Reply: Our policy regarding the wars that capitalism inevitably generates is one of opposition on the grounds that in the modern world wars are fought to defend “vital” capitalist interests – access to sources of raw materials and markets; and to defend strategic points and trade routes. Because we are propertyless members of society we workers have no such interests. It’s not a question of “justice” (and what a weasel word that can be!); it’s not a question of “democracy”; it’s a question of class interest.
We recognise that Marx and Engels had during their lifetime advocated the use of war as a defensive measure against autocratic and reactionary regimes. Their somewhat romantic view of war ignored the technical developments taking place in the field of armaments. By the turn of the century war had become immensely more destructive. It had ceased to be something remote – it had become “total war” waged on civilians because every worker engaged on the production of mechanised war was now in the front line and everything had to serve war. The destruction of life and property in modern war means that war has become an essentially different thing.
It was in the light of these changes that we adopted the view that war is not an instrument that can be used by socialists or supported by socialists and that democracy could not be defended by fighting. This was the position we adopted in WW2 just as we had done in WW1.Whatever the outcome of wars world capitalism would remain essentially unchanged. It would still be riven by international rivalries in which national, racial and religious hatreds could be stoked up when the need arose.
In any case democracy in itself cannot solve a single problem of the working class. Democracy for the working class can only be consolidated and extended to the extent that the working class adopts a socialist standpoint. To renounce socialism so that democracy may be defended, means ultimately the renunciation of both socialism and democracy.
Whether we would have decided differently in possible pre-knowledge of the mass murder of European Jews is too speculative a question to be answered definitively—the “ifs” of history are as fascinating as they are futile. That war had its roots in international rivalry. In particular the struggle by two “late arrivals” on the world stage—Germany and Japan—to obtain political and economic position and influence more in line with their economic power and to replace the existing world order with one more advantageous to their national interests. Which would have justified continued opposition to the war.
The full extent of Nazi persecution did not become clear until the war was well under way and the information was not available to the general public at the time. In any case, there is an ongoing debate as to whether the mass murder of the Jews of Europe had been intended all along or whether it was in a great part brought on by wartime circumstances and was a by-product of war rather than a settled war aim. The question is not as clear cut as is often believed. In any case Nazi race hate in Europe does not explain the outbreak of war in the Pacific in 1941.
What is clear then is that World War Two was not fought to save Jews from the massacre as this did not get fully under way until some time in 1942. Even when it was clear that something unprecedented was happening to Jews, the Allies failed to mount any significant rescue operations when these became possible. Their political and military calculation was that not to help the Jews was to help defeat Hitler; killing the Jews meant Germany diverting troops and resources from the front line, thus contributing to an Allied victory. According to Paul Johnson in his 1988 A History of the Jews, “…the Holocaust was one of the factors which were losing Hitler the war. The British and American led governments knew this.” – Editors.