War and Revolutionary Politics

Translated from Prometeo 17, June 1999

NATO’s war in the Balkans (which in effect meant bombarding the Yugoslav Federation from a height of ten thousand metres) proved far more than anything else recently just what an enormous gulf separates the Marxist minority from the whole of the left bourgeoisie, however radical, which still dominates the political scene. It is as much a theoretical as a political gulf - demonstrated first and foremost by the use of an entirely different methodology as well as by the contrasting political implications and conclusions drawn for the present and future.

Clearly the true reasons for this war - as for every other war involving capitalist states - lie in the economic, strategic and political interests which each state represents and defends and not in the ideological fog manufactured and spread by the bourgeoisie and its hangers-on. Incidentally, we can note here that a necessary function of the bourgeois state is to create a smokescreen rather than clarify the real reasons for its policies. Thus, the Stalinists of yesterday - who would have denounced the imperialist intervention of the USA in European matters when they were in opposition but who are now transformed into the “democratic Left” with responsibility for government - are today among the major producers of this ideological fog. (1)

However, it is not enough to reject the humanitarian ideological rationalisations for the war to understand the war itself and its causes and consequences. For anybody who wants to call themselves a Marxist, the first point that needs clarifying is what stage capitalism is at, i.e. its salient characteristics, since war is a product of the contradictions and problems of capitalism.


The present stage of capitalism is imperialism which opened at the start of the twentieth century with the characteristics highlighted by Lenin in his work, Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism, and which are now developed to such a point that the relationship between finance capital and productive investment has changed. It is to our credit that at least we have tried to identify these “new” aspects, linking them to other social and political aspects of capitalism. On the other hand, no credit at all is due to the huge variety of bourgeois leftist groups (including the self-styled groups of internationalists) who still hold to positions which Lenin had already hammered some 84 years ago. The first lesson of Lenin’s work is indeed that imperialism is not a policy, it is not the policy of this or that state, but is specifically a phase of capitalism.

The present form of capitalism is therefore imperialism. This has not altered capitalism’s basic characteristics - from the anarchy of production, production for profit and the absolute predominance of the drive for profit above any other motivating force, whether political, ethical or humanitarian. It means the existence of major or minor groupings of capitals (on a company, national or multinational basis) and the ceaseless fight amongst them to acquire the maximum profit in any form it can be come by and to exploit the proletariat to the limit. In other words, it is quite obvious that in the world of capitalist countries as a whole their common capitalist nature is accompanied by enormous differences in other factors, such as the level of capital concentration, productive potential and technological development; in brief, the indicators of strength.

Exploitation of the proletariat and repression of the revolutionary class is in the very nature of all capitalist states. However, they are divided into sub-groups defined by the diverse network of interests interwoven between states and geo-economic areas. The main characteristic of the present stage of imperialism is the massive growth of the financial sphere and its associated revenue, which now towers above the various other ways the surplus value extorted from the world’s working class is appropriated. Thus, the position a state holds in the “league table” of appropriation of such revenue is an essential measure of inequality amongst capitalist states today. And this league shows the United States is way ahead of the others as a result of its global control of that vital instrument for plundering and appropriating financial income: oil.

Indeed, it is the control of oil - or more precisely the control of its distribution and trade - which, along with a few other elements, lies behind the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq as well as in Kosovo. Not to understand this is not to recognise the salient features of the phase of capitalism in which we live. It means being unable to employ the critique of political economy which is the essential theoretical basis to any revolutionary politics. It inevitably means holding inappropriate and weak positions from a previous epoch and therefore not grounded in reality. This is so whether the positions are formally correct - as in the best case - or - as in the worst case - when they end up supporting, either consciously or unconsciously, one or other imperialist front, which is mainly what is happening with the hotchpotch of the left-bourgeoisie.

Thus we see the disparate currents of the left-bourgeoisie converging round a supposition which is as vitrified “Third Internationalist” as it is reactionary: the idea that the only imperialism is the USA and its Western Allies while the anti-imperialists are all the others when, at some point, for some reason or other and in one way or other, they are in dispute with the former. Naturally, when it comes to armed conflict, they automatically line up with the supposedly anti-imperialist country, even if this country is Iraq or Serbia, and even if it means supporting Hamas or the Tamil Tigers.

It is as sad as it is interesting to observe the political and ideological contortions which many of these groups, with their petty bourgeois radicalism, impose on themselves in order to remain faithful to their belief, despite the patent obscurantism and reactionary anti-proletarian nature of their supposed anti-imperialism. It is another way of supporting the war: being convinced and looking to convince others that this is the way to develop a proletarian strategy. So many groups see unconditional support for the struggle of the weakest bourgeoisies against the strongest as a “lever” for “a real communist struggle”. And since there is no end to conflict between the bourgeoisie, it is also necessary to transform the weakest bourgeoisie into an “oppressed people”. In practice this is what all the leftists do: on the one side “imperialism”, on the other "oppressed" peoples.


It is true that Lenin also maintained that the struggles of colonial peoples could be part of a revolutionary strategy, but this was only when it was linked to the battle of the Communist International against world capitalism, starting with the stronghold of the workers’ state in Russia. Has there ever been an example of such a link? No. In fact, this was demonstrated to be impossible from the outset - or at least any link between national “anti-imperialist” movements and the movement of the international proletariat was proved to be unattainable.

To continue talking about “the people” as such - in other words, having no class analysis - inevitably means that the direction of the process is left in the hands of the ruling classes, to young bourgeoisies who are as ruthless against their own communists as they are active against imperialism. The story of the relationship between Moscow and Turkey, between the Russian Communist Party and the government of Kemal Ataturk is very significant. The official “friendship and neutrality” ratified between the states with the Treaty of Paris of December 1925 occurred while the Turkish Communist Party was forced underground and eighteen leading communists were condemned to a total of 177 years in prison. (2)

Similarly, we need to remember the Persian events where the involvement of communists in the “intensification of the struggle of nationalists and democratic elements” (viz Reza Khan) (3) led to the accession to the throne of the Shah Reza, but brought no advantage for either the proletarian cause or the Communist Party. Nor did it impede the imperialist schemes of Great Britain in the Near East.

In fact, by 1923 the quest for a combined strategy was already revealed to be a coming together of nationalist movements and the foreign policy of the Soviet State, as the latter worked to break down its isolation and gain a place on the world stage and abandoned any strategy of international revolution.

Once this is acknowledged - in keeping with a Marxist analysis of the process of the counter-revolution in Russia and in the International - then there is no excuse for accepting the “anti-imperialist” political pretensions of states and nationalist movements caught up in the “network” of conflicting interests which typify international capital. The “leading” imperialist state (around which others at one time orbited) no longer exists. That “powerful catalyst” which, according to some fantasists was a major force to mobilise against, has disappeared. But if the policy of “convergence” had already shown itself to have failed in class terms almost eighty years ago, to put forward that same idea today only shows how irredeemably out of date it is.

Today all talk of support for “oppressed peoples” or “people under attack” is nothing less than spurious ideology, often claiming to be in the tradition of the communist left. But, that is how it is. Today the balance of class forces is such, and the objective and subjective activity of the working class so low, that any demand for redress amounts to nothing.

Thus, we have distinguished two key elements: a glaring absence of analytical tools to understand imperialism (even before beginning to analyse its phases) and a ritual call to follow the theses of the Third International, which were weak from the outset but soon succumbed to imperial Soviet policies.

These are the elements which a large spectrum of political organisations had in common when they took positions on the war in Kosovo: organisations ranging from the two souls of the left in Rifondazione to the Trotskyists, and from the archipelago of the Autonomists and some groups which treacherously define themselves as internationalist.

Pro-Serbs and Pro-Kosovans

It is worth pausing for a moment to look at the comical, if not tragic internal contradictions of the components of Rifondazione, and between some of these and the Trotskyists outside Rifondazione. Here we can still see two old positions of the Third International coming up against each other. It is a sign - this has to be clearly said - that something was not right, that there was not enough clarity and coherence even in the early Congresses of the International. The two ‘strong ideas’, which in fact were not strong at all and which now tear the left bourgeoisie to shreds, were those we have already mentioned supporting the “nationalist and democratic anti-imperialist elements” and which, moreover, were strongly linked to the “right of peoples to self-determination”.

So, here is the current scenario: NATO (which is “imperialism”) attacks Serbia. From this Serbia assumes a role which is in some way anti-imperialist and is to be supported unconditionally (so say the most fanatical elements, who are neither Trotskyists nor from Rifondazione). On the other hand, Serbia has for some time operated a policy of repression towards Kosovo, which led first to an autonomist and eventually a secessionist and unionist movement (with Albania). This movement demanded no less than self-determination for the Kosovan people. From this comes the idea that Kosovo has to be supported from political oppression by the mini-imperialists of the Serbian regime. The antagonism between the pro-Serbs and the pro-Kosovans which had been clear before NATO intervened was in a sense suffocated when NATO attacked. We say “suffocated” because none of the contenders were willing to go beyond a vague condemnation of mega-imperialism (i.e. Euro-United States) and its undoubted brutality. Nevertheless, the political antagonism remains and the terms of future agreements made by these bandits who are currently observing a ceasefire will not fail to embarrass the supporters of one or other of the fronts in the Balkans.

Then there are the outsiders (such as Operai Contro). (4) They are still weighed down by the above mentioned theses of the Third International and even support the necessity for the international unity of the proletariat against capital (that single generator of war and misery). But they debase everything by their defence of Kosovan self-determination and their direct call on Serbian workers to defend Serbia against Milosovic. Their underlying assumption is that the struggle of the working class in Serbia must, or could, begin at the same time and in alliance with the Kosovan bourgeoisie. It is enough to make you shudder, since it is undoubtedly the bourgeoisie which is behind the movement for Kosovan independence and is directing it. Moreover, the fact that half of it is made up of the tatters of the old bureaucracy looking to manage and share out the crumbs of the promised investment from the NATO aggressors while the other half are gangsters and drug traffickers, arms dealers and dealers in human beings, as opposed to the spruced up captains of industry and the coupon cutters, only makes the picture worse.

The weakness of the theses of the Third International on the issue of “self-determination of peoples” was defended in 1920 with the “observation” that:

The present world economic and political situation has put the dictatorship of the proletariat on the order of the day and all the events of world politics are inevitably concentrated around a single centre of gravity: the fight of the international bourgeoisie against the Soviet Republic, which has to group around itself on the one side the soviet movement of the advanced workers of every country, and on the other every movement of national emancipation of the colonies and of the oppressed nationalities (who by bitter experience have become convinced that there is no salvation for them outside an alliance with the revolutionary proletariat) with the victorious soviet power over world imperialism. (5)

Here is the nub of the problem - round which the whole of the sometimes polemical debate between Lenin and other communists, such as the Indian Roy and the Persian Sultan Zadeh, is focussed: the “right of self-determination” is defended against colonial and imperialist countries since the whole political force of attraction is towards making proletarian power the order of the day.

Well, nothing of all that exists today, nor has it for a long time: neither a dictatorship of the proletariat either in prospect or in fact, nor a vast proletarian communist movement, nor that (erroneously supposed) conviction of the nationalist movements that it would be necessary for them to ally with the world revolutionary proletariat. To those who raise the law of self-determination as an absolute principle, as a moral principle that communists must adopt, we respond that communists not only don’t defend the laws of one faction of the bourgeoisie against another, but we fight to the death against the bourgeoisie as a whole and all of its “laws” of exploitation, starvation and butchering of the proletarian masses.

Realism or Political Idiocy?

Between the “substantial” arguments supporting the pro-nationalist theses (disguised as internationalism) there is that “realism” of necessity which starts from the reality of the existing situation in order to move towards... (we’ll see where).

Now it is out of the question, in Serbia as in Kosovo (and just as in a lot of other areas and countries) that nationalism dominates the consciousness (if we can call it that) of the proletariat. To now go on and talk about proletarian unity between the workers of the oppressed nationalities and of the nationalities who oppress whilst “ignoring” the reality of the relations of oppression, is to be guilty of political detachment and inept intellectualism.

Here we find the pro-Serbs and the pro-Kosovans - all of them trying to determine which nationalities or entities oppress and which are the oppressors. But for the argument to be valid it is necessary to demonstrate that being reduced to the confines of the existing situation has (at least sometimes) contributed to changing it.

Yet the opposite is the case. Whenever the communists have found themselves at the head of an objective movement of the class and made some impression, at least in terms of intensified politics, it has always involved vigorous political activity - propaganda, agitation and organisation - against the current situation; whether it be the Russian Revolution or the Red Years in Italy, the attempted revolution in Germany or during the Resistance. We must remember that the PCInt was born at the height of world war, on the wave of the Milan and Turin strikes of 1943, against all the imperialist fronts and against the partisans who found themselves lined up on one of those fronts. This, even when Italy found itself attacked and invaded by its ex-ally Germany, even when the “order of the day” was national liberation from the German invader and oppressor, in alliance of course with the Anglo-American so-called liberators.

“Starting from the given reality of the situation” in the sense suggested by the current exponents of petty bourgeois leftism implied (as it meant in fact for a large number of oppositionists to the King, from the Trotskyists to the majority of anarchists) making the nationalist demand one’s own. It meant entering with full title into the resistance movement, calling for peace after every demand made by the class and confining to impossibility any chance of action when the CLN 6 formed the government and continued to thrash the working class whilst calling on it to make sacrifices for capitalist reconstruction. Where had the sham oppositions to the PCI finished up when the government and the PCI called up the police against the unemployed and whilst all the nationalists (from the Popolari (7) to the PCI) were calling for blood, sweat and tears for “our own” bosses? They had all been swallowed up by nationalism, the only thing they had in common with the opposition, which had now acquired some of the strongest and most capable elements. The internationalists remained the only existing class opposition and were able to save, more or less, the theoretical and political heritage of the internationalist movement in Italy.

Returning to Serbia or Kosovo, the whole process has repeated itself, though in a different time and place. Simply accepting the present reality and ignoring obstacles in the way gives grist to the mill of the extreme nationalists (the KLA in Kosovo and Milosevic or Seselj in Serbia); it helps to bind the proletariat to the capitalist survival machine and to bury every possibility of class recovery which, if it ever should happen, will happen outside of and against bourgeois coalitions and those useful idiots of the radical petty bourgeoisie.

What is worst of all about this so-called realism is the great excitement about choosing which one of the opposing fronts to side with today. This inevitably will finish by taking sides in the war that is still being prepared because, big ideas which supposedly reflect ethical and political principles aside, every war mobilises the population on the basis of nationalism. But the bourgeoisie will always find useful idiots who will help it call the working class to arms in its war, embellishing the appeals with hypocritical musings about communism some time in the future. And the class struggle? Tomorrow we will see, but in the meantime... The ways of reaction, are even more infinite than the ways of the Lord.

The (Difficult) Road To Revolution

It is impossible to be inter-nationalist here and nationalist there. It is impossible to be against the intervention of NATO here and in favour of the attacks by the Serbian regime there (or the Iraqi, or...). The revolutionary and internationalist way forward, that of revolutionary defeatism, of the struggle against one’s own bourgeoisie and against the world bourgeoisie, was valid everywhere in 1917 and is even more valid today, in this period of out-and-out internationalisation of capital, of the realignment of the imperialist fronts over immense geo-economic areas and the international competition for oil and the revenue derived from it.

Is the Serbian proletariat - let’s say - under the sway of nationalism today? If so, it is the duty of communists to draw it towards its own independent class interests by fighting back theoretically, politically and organisationally against nationalism. Only in the realm of fantasy is it conceivable to win against nationalism by being more nationalist than the nationalists, more royalist than the King. So: we have to be outside of and against every nationalism.

Will we be successful at once against the state and against imperialist war? We have certainly never been deceived or deluded into thinking this. What we will do is plant a class-based, revolutionary presence. This will work to build a political organisation that is deeply rooted in the class, which helps to turn round the situation and as it does so leads the proletariat on to the attack. In the absence of this, not only will the present, but so also will the future of the proletariat be dominated by nationalism, with all hope of emancipation postponed indefinitely.

It is impossible to preach the unity of the Serbian and Kosovan proletariat and at the same time support their respective bourgeois capitalist regimes (unless we want to deny the bourgeois capitalist nature of those regimes, and in that case we hurl ourselves into more archaic Stalinism, and so, amen). Neither can we preach anti-capitalist unity here and over there call the Serbian working class to defend the vain self-deterministic ambitions of the shabby and criminal Kosovan bourgeoisie. Who decides that the Kosovan people, the proletariat included, are for independence or unification with Albania? With this logic we should all go home since working class votes help the D’Alemas and the Berlusconis into government. We Marxists and internationalists don’t attach much importance to the fact that today the proletariat, as a victim of bourgeois ideology, is induced to the ballot box. Our task is to fight against the ideological hold the bourgeoisie has on the proletariat and to prepare the political conditions for a revolutionary upturn, whether here or in the USA or in Latin America or in Serbia or in Iraq. We know that the revolutionary upturn won’t come about merely because we want it to, but because of the objective dynamics which exist outside of us. But we know that if the upturn arrives and revolutionary guidance is absent or insufficient then the class will certainly be defeated and the movement will decline. And we know that this guidance must be international and centralised to be effective in the battle against imperialism - real imperialism that is.

Thus, whether in Iraq, Serbia or Kosovo, faced with the attacks of one group of bigger bandits against local bandits, we fight against every form of alliance or truce between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Our aim is to establish and reinforce the political reference points for the class and for revolutionaries, so as eventually to form a section of the international party. In the immediate future there will be a host of analogous situations and we will again see the left bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie chasing after those regimes which are “less bad”, those which are “anti-imperialist”, and they will call on the proletariat to support them. It will end with their taking sides in a struggle which has been prepared by these earlier tragic manoeuvres between the imperialist centres. As far as we are concerned, however, we will continue on our internationalist path, fully aware of what is to come. It won’t be easy to call on workers to defend their autonomous class interests in the face of a bourgeois regime at war. Even in the democratic and liberal heartlands of imperialism once war is declared then no other voice than that of nationalism - however expressed - is allowed. And it will not matter whether the nationalism in question is the small-minded version belonging to a single country or that of a future United States of Europe.

Conversely, the workers’ movement is going to have to deal with some thorny theoretical, historical and political problems. The revolutionary advance guard is still only a meagre force but internationally there a few groups preparing to resolve them in order that the revolutionary proletariat can get back on course. By the same token, a lot of organisations calling themselves revolutionary will reveal themselves for what they are: radical bourgeois organisations, characteristically ready to line up with our class enemy. Still others - the sermonising sects who are incapable of using the methods and instruments of Marxism - are destined to be swept away by the wind of history which is becoming increasingly turbulent.

(1) The Italian state’s participation in NATO’s war was spearheaded and justified by the ruling “Centre-Left” coalition headed by the former Stalinist (ex-PCI), Massimo D’Alema.

(2) See Edward H Carr, Socialism in One Country II 1924-1926, Einaudi pp. 604-608.

(3) Ibid pp. 608-613.

(4) Operai Contro has its origins in Maoism but today is difficult to identify politically. Whilst sometimes espousing unequivocal class positions it often falls into serious contradictions, as in the case of the Balkan war. Almost exclusively, OC maintains that the party will come directly from the factories and the workers committees operating inside them.

(5) Theses et Additions Sur les Questions Nationale et Coloniale, Thesis 5 - Les Quatres Premiers Congres Mondiaux de l’Internationale Communiste (1919-1923) Bibliotheque Communiste - Librairie du Travail, 1934, Reprinted in facsimile La Breche - Selio 1984.

(6) Committees of National Liberation, partisan anti-fascist brigades formed after the collapse of Mussolini’s regime in 1943 when Italy became divided between the Nazi-occupied north (under Mussolini’s puppet “Republic of Salo”) and the advancing Anglo-US forces of Allied imperialism in the south. About half the CLN partisans belonged to the “Garibaldini” brigades of the PCI and, with the CLN as a whole, cooperated with the Allies.

(7) Forerunner of the Christian Democrats who dominated the Italian political scene until 1990.