In June 1918, Eugene Debs gave a speech that would land him in prison. Speaking in Canton, Ohio, the Socialist Party leader denounced President Woodrow Wilson and the Great War he had led the United States into.
For Debs, the mass slaughter that had raged across Europe for four bloody years was a conflict waged in the interests of capitalists, but fought by workers. In each country it was the rich who had declared war and stood to profit from it; but it was the poor who were sent to fight and die by the millions.
This, Debs told his audience, was how it had always been, as long as armies had been sent to battle one another in the name of king or country. “Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder,” he said. “The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose — especially their lives.”
Debs’s message to workers was a simple one: their enemy was not the people of Germany, the working-class soldiers they were being shipped off to murder; it was the rulers, on both sides, who ordered the troops into battle. It was the capitalists and their representatives in the American and German governments, whose wealth and power gave them control over the fates of millions.
Debs’s speech was too much for authorities in the United States — they arrested him under a new law restricting free speech, the 1917 Espionage Act, and sentenced him to ten years in jail. Remarkably, in the 1920 election, Debs ran for president on the Socialist ticket while sitting in an Atlanta federal penitentiary, and still managed to win almost a million votes.
Making the World Safe for Capitalism
In the example of Debs, we can see the core ideas that have underpinned the socialist movement’s approach to the question of war. Socialists have always seen capitalism’s propensity for wars of conquest and plunder as the ultimate expression of the system’s brutality. In the organization of state violence on an unprecedented scale, we see capitalism’s tendency to subordinate human need to the logic of profit and power. In the gap between the promise of democratic equality and the reality of class oppression that war expresses, we see the fundamental injustice that defines our social order.
Under capitalism, exploitation occurs mostly through the market. It is the ostensibly non-coercive contractual relationship between workers and employers that masks deeper underlying class inequalities. But the war-making power of the capitalist state is still essential for the healthy functioning of the system. Capitalists in countries like the United States still rely on their own government’s military, both to enforce the “rules of the game” in the global economy and to help them compete more effectively against other ruling classes.
Against this state of affairs, socialists support the organization of mass movements against the wars waged by our government. We participate in the struggle against restrictions on free speech and other democratic rights which inevitably accompany these wars. Against calls for “national unity,” we fight for international solidarity and stronger class organization to fight for workers’ interests. In the longer run, we aim to translate these movements into a broader struggle for a radical transformation of society along democratic lines.
Nowhere is this approach more important than in the United States — the most powerful capitalist country in the world. Today, the US spends more on its military than the next seven highest-spending countries combined. Our government has roughly eight hundred foreign military bases. American soldiers or allied troops are present in every region of the globe.
Over the past century and a half, the American state has waged brutal wars on behalf of a growing empire, from the 1898 Spanish-American War to the recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It has intervened again and again in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to protect the interests of business and stamp out movements that might threaten its control over key resources or undermine the global capitalist system’s stability.
Often these adventures were depicted as being necessary to bring freedom and democracy to oppressed countries, or to protect American citizens from danger. The historical record, however, tells a different story.
Even at the time of the 1898 Spanish-American War, considered by many to have been the dawn of modern American imperialism, the US government was invading Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines in the name of freeing their peoples from the yoke of Spanish colonialism. When, after victory was secured, Washington decided to make those three territories American protectorates (or in the case of Puerto Rico, an outright colony), it issued assurances that it had only the most benevolent intentions.
And when the residents of those countries took these promises of freedom and democracy too literally, the United States decided it had no choice but to crush the popular independence struggles that emerged. In the Philippines, a nationalist insurrection that erupted in 1899 was put down at the cost of several hundred thousand Filipino lives.
In every war between then and now the pattern has been the same. The US government entered World War I in 1917 (after Wilson won the 1916 election on the basis of his antiwar pledges) to “make the world safe for democracy,” while sending Marines all over Latin America in defense of capital’s economic and political interests. It fought World War II to “free the world of tyranny,” but spent the postwar years fixing elections in Italy, sponsoring a vicious civil war in Greece, and propping up the shah of Iran.
It sent millions to their graves in Korea and Southeast Asia to “save” people there from Communism, while installing brutal dictatorships in both South Vietnam and South Korea. Meanwhile, US policy-makers covertly organized the overthrow of popular and democratic governments all over the globe — from Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran to Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and Salvador Allende in Chile.
To justify these campaigns, American officials have often resorted to vicious racism. General William Westmoreland once justified the brutality of the forces he led in Vietnam by saying that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner . . . we value life and human dignity. They don’t care about life and human dignity.”
At every turn, the American government has shown its commitment to democracy and freedom abroad to be as shallow as its commitment to equality at home. Again and again, it has proven that its fear of democratic control over the world’s resources ran deeper than its pro-democratic rhetoric.
As Henry Kissinger, who served as a foreign-policy adviser to three presidents, said of the efforts by the Nixon administration to topple Chile’s elected socialist government, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.” The same went for 1980s attempts to undermine leftist governments in tiny Nicaragua and even tinier Grenada.
More recently, this pattern has been repeated in the Middle East — now the central battleground for the US and its imperial competitors, because of its role as the center of global oil production.
If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were initially justified by elites as necessary to defend American lives, destroy Al Qaeda, and eradicate terrorism, they accomplished none of those aims. Nor have they resulted in democratic governments in either country.
On the contrary, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in these wars have only destabilized the region and intensified sectarian divisions. Rather than supporting democratic movements, the United States has backed dictatorial regimes in Egypt and Bahrain, and helped strengthen the most vicious and reactionary monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The United States has also allowed Israel to escalate its daily violence (with semi-regular bouts of mass killings in Gaza), occupation, and settlement expansion at the expense of Palestinians. And it has watched as the contending sides in the Syrian civil war have overseen a slaughter that has drowned the Syrian struggle for democracy in the blood of hundreds of thousands of citizens.
Given the scope and scale of American imperial violence, it’s crucial that socialists in the United States oppose their government’s military interventions. Such a stance is necessary for any genuine working-class solidarity. Every time the US government blows up an Afghan wedding party or helps protect a death squad in Iraq; every time it sends someone to rot in a prison in Afghanistan or Guantanamo Bay; every time it allows the CIA to torture a prisoner; it makes class solidarity across borders less likely.
Why should workers in other countries ally themselves with those in the United States, in whose name they are bombed and occupied? To the extent that Americans buy into the nationalism that inevitably goes along with their government’s machinations abroad, they make the emergence of a class-based movement against oppression and exploitation impossible.
Meanwhile, the position of American workers only deteriorates further. When hundreds of billions of dollars are spent attacking countries around the globe, it isn’t available for social welfare programs that could help those at home.
The waste of blood and resources, the racism, and the reactionary upsurges that are the handmaidens of wars abroad all rebound to the detriment of workers in the United States. At a time when millions of Americans are suffering from unemployment and poverty, the more than $2 trillion spent on the invasion and occupation of Iraq seems increasingly obscene.
All this means that the American labor movement has a material incentive to oppose its own government’s drive to war. It is for this reason that socialists think an international working-class movement against war and imperialism is not only necessary, but also possible.
The Enemy at Home
However, if socialists in a country like the United States are opposed to the wars fought by their governments, that does not mean they are pacifists — that is, that they oppose all wars or have a principled stance against any kind of violence. The question is who is waging the war and on behalf of what interests or policies.
As the nineteenth-century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted, “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” Clausewitz meant that to understand the character of a given war, you had to understand who was fighting it and for what purpose. Of course, Clausewitz, a Prussian general in the Napoleonic Wars, was hardly a left-wing radical, but his basic point is an important one for socialists to understand.
The socialist movement wants to eradicate war because it is brutal and irrational — a waste of human life and social resources that produces enormous devastation. But in a world filled with exploitation and oppression, one has to differentiate between the violence of those fighting to maintain injustice, and those fighting against injustice.
One cannot, for example, conflate the violence of South African apartheid with that of the armed elements of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. The same goes for the violence of the American military during the Vietnam War — a war that eventually killed as many as 3.5 million people — and that of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, which fought to free Vietnam from French and American domination.
For the socialist movement, Clausewitz’s dictum points to the need to assess any war on the basis of the interests it serves. It’s no coincidence that socialists like Marx and Engels supported the Union in the Civil War, recognizing that despite Lincoln’s stated intention to reunite the country without doing away with slavery, a war against the Confederacy would necessarily become a war against the planter class.
In fact, as Lincoln — who in the 1840s opposed the Mexican-American War because he saw it as an effort to expand slavery to new territories — came to recognize, the North could only succeed by mobilizing slaves in a battle for their own freedom.
None of this is to suggest that socialists have a purely instrumental approach to violence — that we think, as is so often claimed, that “the ends justify of the means.” In our efforts to achieve the kind of change we seek, violence can only undermine our cause over the long term; we can never hope to match the capacity for violence of the capitalist state, and our movement will only be weakened insofar as the struggle for socialism is transformed from a social and political conflict into a military one.
Nor are we necessarily supportive of governments just because they happen to be in conflict with our own: we do not excuse the imperial violence of, for instance, Russia and China simply because they are occasionally at loggerheads with our own rulers.
More fundamentally, it is important to be clear that our support for groups fighting against their oppression, at the hands of the US government or anyone else, does not mean that we’re always uncritical of these forces.
One need only look at the growing levels of inequality and the increasing penetration of global capitalism in South Africa since the fall of apartheid, or in Vietnam since its liberation, to see that even victorious struggles need not produce a truly just outcome. Indeed, while expressing solidarity with movements challenging oppression, socialists must be willing to criticize those waging these struggles, whenever necessary — whether that criticism is made on political, strategic, or even moral grounds.
But neither do we treat all sides in a particular conflict as if they were the same. Above all, we oppose our own government’s role in propagating wars, or expanding its military and political influence, at the expense of the working classes of the world. As the German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht put it in a speech during World War I, we understand that “the main enemy is at home.”
On that basis, we hope to forge an internationalist movement that can not only challenge a particular imperial intervention, but can come to pose a threat to the very foundations of a system that breeds war and mass violence on a scale unprecedented in history.
Today, the Left is far too weak to accomplish that goal. In the United States, the labor movement lacks the capacity for sustained activity against war. But what the example of Eugene Debs shows us is that there is a long history of radical opposition to imperialism from which we can draw hope and inspiration.
That tradition of left-wing anti-imperialism lived on after Debs himself died. If it lost steam during the Cold War years of McCarthyite repression after World War II, it was revived during the 1960s and 1970s. Figures such as Martin Luther King Jr became increasingly vocal critics of the Vietnam War. Although he is often depicted as an anodyne moralist, a precursor to multicultural liberalism, King was actually a visionary whose politics became increasing radical in tandem with the movement he led.
Nothing expressed that growing radicalism better than his decision to publicly oppose the Vietnam War — a move which even his closest advisers recommended against because of its potential political consequences.
Ignoring their counsel, on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, King delivered the most controversial speech of his career. Speaking at New York’s Riverside Church, he came out against the Vietnam War and called on the Johnson administration to halt its unprecedented bombing campaign and initiate a withdrawal of the half-million US troops in Southeast Asia.
Decrying the “madness” of the Democratic administration’s policy, King focused on the incredible brutality that ordinary people in Vietnam faced at the hands of the American military. “They must see Americans as strange liberators,” he concluded, when that supposed liberation involved propping up corrupt, undemocratic governments, destroying entire villages, defoliating the countryside with napalm and Agent Orange, and killing women, children, and the elderly.
And what of the US soldiers, overwhelmingly working-class kids drawn from poverty-stricken rural communities and segregated urban ghettoes? Noting the disproportionate number of African Americans who had been sent to kill and die in the swamps of Vietnam, King castigated the administration for “taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”
King pointed out that the hopes for a real effort to combat poverty in the US that had been inspired by Johnson’s Great Society program had been destroyed by the escalation in Vietnam. A genuine campaign to eradicate poverty at home was impossible, he had concluded, “so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.”
Given all this, King said that he could no longer keep silent, despite the strong pressure from his supposed allies in the Johnson administration to avoid public criticism of the government’s Vietnam policy. Comparing the incredible scale of the violence in Vietnam to the relatively minor destruction produced by a series of riots that had broken out in many of America’s big cities — which had caused much hand-wringing in the press over the threat posed by “black extremists” — King described his realization “that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.” A few days later, he marched in a mass protest against the war in New York’s Central Park.
King’s speech, known to posterity as “Beyond Vietnam,” earned him the ire of even previously sympathetic figures in the liberal establishment. He was disinvited from a planned visit with Johnson at the White House. One of the president’s advisers wrote privately that King had “thrown in his lot with the commies.”
Meanwhile, he was attacked in editorials that appeared the next day in 168 major newspapers. The New York Times wrote that his denunciation of the war was “wasteful and self-defeating.” The Washington Post did them one better, saying of King, “he has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, and his people.”
What King came to understand was that racism and inequality at home, and war abroad, were interlinked. This recognition put him at odds with his erstwhile liberal supporters, whose willingness to challenge the status quo ended — as it so often has for the liberal establishment — when America’s position as the world’s strongest imperial power came into question.
Yet in confronting these questions, and challenging his former friends, King was taking on a set of issues any mass social movement that makes serious advances in the United States will eventually have to face: one can’t talk about social change at home while ignoring the carnage generated by American foreign policy. For the US left, and especially any future socialist movement here, that’s a lesson worth learning.