[The First Comrade Naveen Babu Memorial Lecture, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, 10 February 2012.]
First it is necessary to make a statement on whom I speak for. I am a communist but since close on sixty years a non-party communist. The reasons for that I have written about in several books. Thus I am not the spokesperson for any specific organization that can be made responsible for what I say.
I have just published a book mainly based on my visit to the guerrilla zone in Dandakaranya on the invitation of the CPI (Maoist): Red Star Over India: As the Wretched of the Earth are Rising. There I describe how, when we after a long march through the jungle came to the camp in Dandakaranya at night and had got our cup of tea, a group came walking out of the jungle. After some time I understood that it was the general secretary of the CPI (Maoist), Ganapathy and his comrades.
In the discussion with them that followed I tried to say something about our experience – positive and negative – of political work against war and imperialism during more than a century in a small imperialist country like Sweden.
As we at the end of our visit after sixteen days took a formal goodbye of our hosts I was also asked about the working class and the present situation in Europe.
At that meeting we more formally discussed the present situation in our part of the world. Deepening economic and social crisis, rising unemployment and strong – but mainly spontaneous – popular struggles. There are different organizations of new types often based on linkage through the net protesting against the destructive economic policies of the governments and transnational capital. We will see how strong they will prove to be against the present and the coming governmental onslaught. The loose organisational form is a defence against governmental repression but at the same time it makes conscious collective action impossible. Since half-a-century or so, since the beginning of at least a formal de-colonization, many solidarity organisations have been built up in our countries. They are of different types. Some have been proved to be of real and political importance. There are also different groups on the party level. They are often valiant but too often have sectarian drawbacks and as yet they do not reach the majority of the working class and its allies.
As to the traditional and official parties of the so called “Left”, the social-democratic, labour and formerly communist parties they are unable even to formulate a traditional reformist policy against the crisis that hits the working class hard. Which is not strange as they in reality – as the former communist party in Sweden – are state financed and not member financed organisations? Thus they have become structurally unable to take the lead, participate in or even to more than give a slight lip service to the fight against the new imperialist wars. Also they have nearly made themselves wholly ideologically disarmed. Not only have they for economic reasons closed their newspapers, magazines and book stores they have also ended their theoretical studies; from the traditional reformist to the more or less revolutionary. Only here and there some members have individually and locally been able to keep study circles alive. The state financed cadres and the remaining members are thus ideologically vaguely feminist and at best – to use a German term – Revoluzzer-like.
In some cases their party organisation has been infiltrated and partly taken over by imperialist groups. In the fifties this was typical of the work by CIA in the organisations of the “Socialist International”. A recent example of this can be studied in Germany where the efficient Zionist and Israel-inspired faction in the youth movement – Bundesarbeitskreises Shalom der Linksjugend – last summer got control over the parliamentary group. They succeeded in getting work for the Palestinian people branded as anti-party and now this winter they enlarged this description of “anti-party behaviour” to include also support for the Syrian and Iranian people faced by imperialist war.
Also typical has been the way in which the once independent and honest, mainly liberal, peace organisations with a certain mass basis have either become emasculated or transformed to supporting what is called “humanitarian intervention”.
If you read my book you will find that I there discuss this question throughout the whole text. That is not so strange. After all I have for the last seventy years both seen and in different ways taken part in the movements and thus personally experienced both the struggles often victorious and the defeats.
In the Dandakaranya jungle I lay in the night silently reciting to myself the best text that I know of that describes our situation:
That is the poem, “An die Nachgeborenen” from the thirties that Bertold Brecht wrote in exile in Denmark. It is often translated to English as “To posterity”. But the translations seem to me to miss – for our generations in the imperialist countries – the most valuable lines:
“Gingen wir doch, öfter als die Schuhe die Länder wechselnd
Durch die Kriege der Klassen, verzweifelt
Wenn da nur Unrecht war und keine Empörung.”
The literal meaning would be: Though we walked through the wars between the classes – more often changing countries than shoes – despairing, as there was only injustice and no uprising.
The reasons for this tragic historical situation was something I thought about these nights as I lay awake in the sleeping bag beside the young adivasi comrades from the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army.
Why “only injustice and no uprising”? This is – and has in the political movements on the so called “left” been – a central question these last more than a hundred years. We in Europe have discussed it concretely in connection with the defeat of the revolution of 1848, the war between France and Prussia in 1870, the cruel repression after the defeat of the Commune 1871 and the outbreak of the First World War 1914.
The working class of the imperialist states has been proved unable to hinder these defeats and wars. In 1914 – 1918 the then mainly social-democratic European working class in their millions marched unresisting – as calves to the slaughter-house – to their death in Flanders.
This whole period in our countries from then to today has been characterized by demonstrations, economic and and political struggles. There have been great partial victories as the defeat of the Nazi-inspired reaction in Sweden during the thirties; the success of the Popular Front in France in 1936; the peace movement in the fifties that hindered then the United States planned nuclear war; the international solidarity movement that became a real hindrance for the United States imperialists in their war against the peoples of South East Asia fifty years ago. One should never forget or disparage what the people have achieved in the struggles.
But there have as we all know been decisive defeats. The rise to power by the Hitlerite forces in Germany, the victory of Franco in Spain, the change of colour and then the decay and dissolution of the Soviet Union and the present working class inability to organize to hinder the new imperialist wars.
It is a historical fact that the working class and its allies in our imperialist countries have up to now been proved unable to rise up against injustice. They have in tragic fact either actively or by being silent given their support to the destructive policies of the ruling class.
But why is this? One answer is the one that was discussed by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Manabendra Nath Roy in the commission for the national and colonial question during the Second Congress of the Communist International in July 1920.
M. N. Roy held that: “In exploiting colonial masses, European imperialism is capable of giving a number of slops to the metropolitan proletariat.”
Lenin of course saw that the problem existed. Not only had he himself worked intensively against the catastrophe when the international socialist movement collapsed facing the World War only some years back but as he said:
Comrade Quelch of the British Socialist Party spoke of this in our commission. He said that the rank-and-file British worker would consider it treasonable to help the enslaved nations in their uprisings against British rule.
But Lenin did not want to accept that this was the position of the “rank and file workers” in general but only that of the “workers’ aristocracy” and that the real solution was to be found in the political responsibility of the new International to change it:
I would also like to emphasise the importance of revolutionary work by the Communist parties, not only in their own, but also in the colonial countries, and particularly among the troops employed by the exploiting nations to keep the colonial peoples in subjection.”
With hindsight we know that the international communist movement that Lenin sought to develop was often heroic in the struggle for a better future for mankind but that it did not prove able to fulfil the necessary militant solidarity with the struggle of the peoples in “the colonial and dependent countries” that he had found necessary.
Ho Chih Minh can thus be seen as having been historically correct in 1924 when he at the Fifth World Congress of the Communist International criticised the lack of real solidarity from the Communist parties of the imperial and colonial powers.
To understand the reasons for this and what it means for our common future it is first necessary to take some steps back to get an overview and then look closely.
Marx was careful to point out that he was not the first one to recognize that all history is the history of class struggle. Engels then when the first real studies of pre-history had been published drew the conclusion that this statement is true about all written history, i.e. it is true from the beginning of class society.
In this period of class societies whether you look at the Roman Empire or Mogul society or the gilded age in the United States after the civil war or at India today you see classes struggling. Even if you want to analyze the official society of a harsh fascist dictatorship like that of Nazi Germany where not only communist and socialist but also liberal tendencies are forbidden and repressed, you will find how class struggle determines its policies. On all levels. Even the prison guards in the concentration camps have class interests in contradiction to the rulers.
What Marx then saw was that the rise of capitalism and the victory of the bourgeoisie created a growing class of “free” wage earners, proletarians who had nowhere to go but up. Their struggle thus in the long run became a struggle against the very concept of the society created by the bourgeoisie.
This radical challenge in Europe began to be formulated between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries during a series of very violent and cruel wars against the feudal authorities by poor peasants. The ideology they formed out of their own national and religious roots in their struggles closely resembles that of the Taiping peasant revolutionaries in China during the nineteenth century. That is not strange. Similar struggles breed similar ideologies.
I mentioned this in my book also in connection with the ideological development during the Naxalite struggle in India; the general Marxist, Maoist roots and the continual honing of the theory through the revolutionary practice.
For Friedrich Engels these European peasant wars five hundred years ago were pre-revolutionary; doomed to failure. I am not so sure. Of course they had limited aims if they are compared with those of the working class of today but in Sweden and in Switzerland they were rather victorious and this shaped these societies in a way very different from that of continental Europe in general.
It is as Hegel pointed out not possible to jump out of one’s own time. It would be as trying to run away from one’s shadow. But it is possible to see the present in perspective, to ascertain the age of the time.
Marx never wrote prescriptions for the future. What more is, he did not – as Engels pointed out – write definitions; he wrote developments. If we go back to a certain stage in history, say Europe 1848 or India 1944 we can describe what happened and also (with some effort) why. Afterwards we can point to the reasons. But that specific train of events at the time was not determined, unavoidable or, to put it in religious terms, pre-ordained. At the time a multitude of developments inside the then frame of possibilities were open. Or to put it in another way: there is no great book in heaven where everything is written. Man makes himself and continuously shapes his history. (And Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao were not” inspired”, they wrote and worked out of the possibilities of their time.)
History that, which has happened, is continuously being reappraised. It might be an apocryphal story that Zhou Enlai when asked about the French revolution answered that it was too early to comment. I ought to have asked him but never did. Though he was right of course.
In the same way there is no end to history (except that there can be an end to humanity as there surely is an end to my own life.) We might say that socialism could be the end of pre-history and the beginning of conscious history. But that would not be the great harmony. Such a continuum, a lasting state of harmony, cannot exist. Class conflict would disappear with classes, but as Mao pointed out conflicts would continue. Even in ten thousand years.
This is not a deviation from the subject. It is a way of getting closer to the answers. Because what is the experience of the working class and its allies during this present historical period? and what wars are we talking of?
The officially mighty Second International (that accurately had described the coming war in its extraordinary Congress in Basel in 1912) collapsed as built of cards when the imperialist war became a reality in 1914. Despite the decades of revolutionary rhetoric the leading cadres had nearly to a man been co-opted up to the ruling class and the masses lulled to apathy by the popular culture in the hands of the bourgeoisie. Their wages for that were mass deaths.
And in practice M. N. Roy and “Comrade Quelch of the British Socialist Party” even after that catastrophe seem to have had their case proven by what happened in Hitlerite Germany and then later in the large French Communist Party during the post-World War II decolonisation in North Africa.
Look at Saar! On January 13 1935 the people of Saar – which was under League of Nations mandate since 1920 – voted. The elections were under international supervision. The choice for the people was between immediate reunion with Germany or a continuation as an independent League of Nations mandate.
Ever since Hitler’s Machtübernahme as Reichskanzler on January 30, 1933 trade unionists, socialists, communists, intellectuals and Jews had fled over the border to Saar from the mounting terror in the new Germany, the Third Reich.
The working class parties in the Saar were not weak. The electorate was an informed one. The rising wave of that Nazi terror in Germany was well-known. The concentration camps, the murders during “the night of long knives” in June 1934, the anti-Semitic pogroms, all were known. Still on January 13, 1935 in free and internationally supervised elections 90.3% of the people of the Saar voted for Hitler.
The reason was not some strange Teutonic nationalism. It was a simple economic one. By printing money and embarking on a rapid re-armament for a coming war the government of Hitler had decreased unemployment in Germany from 26.3% in 1933 to 14.9% in 1934. (As the war preparations went on, the number of unemployed continued falling: 11.6% in 1935, 8.3% in 1936, 4.6% in 1937, 2.1% in 1938.) The working class and its allies supported Hitler – even if many being former communists and socialists were a little doubtful – because Germany was beginning to experience full employment and the social security and labour protection regulations became close to those of the Social Democratic Scandinavian countries.
Mark you, for those who resisted the Nazis among communists and socialists (or Liberals and Christians) and for Jews whatever their social beliefs and standing, the terror was cruel. But if one kept silent and just went along as usual then life was better in the Third Reich than before and both children and parents had the possibility of good and well organized vacations.
Of course for political reasons we did not write this at that time. (We during the war even kept the fiction that the Austria that had been a bastion for virulent Nazis had been an “occupied country”.)
But the results of the election in Saar were, as I myself remember, a shock to people like my parents and other social democrats. And the Saar election determined then both the change in the Comintern and the Soviet foreign policy. In the Comintern it took a struggle to change the former sectarian policy that had led to the defeat in Germany. Magazines such as “Geganangriff” in Prague that up to then had written as if the revolution in Germany was near and even the paramilitary “SA”, the Nazi party Sturmabteilung, was going to become anti-Hitler now published more realistic articles.
The Soviet foreign policy changed course in face of the threat from Nazi Germany. Pierre Laval was invited to Moscow and on May 2, 1935, France and the USSR concluded the pact of mutual assistance. As the French press reported he spoke up against the then purely anti-military strategy of the French party, “M. Stalin understands and fully approves the French policy of national defense”.
We all know that the attempt to form a broad anti-fascist front against the “aggressor states, Germany, Italy, Japan” failed. That was not proof of a lack of will from the governments of Great Britain, France; on the contrary their main interest was appeasement of these, their rivals, in order to unleash Hitler – and them – in a war against the Soviet Union. But behind that failure was the real failure to mobilize the working class in these imperialistic states for a common front.
You can see the reason for that political short sightedness by the weak support among the British working class for the independence of India; the general popular feeling there was as that in France for Algerian independence a generation later.
Too large a section of the working class in the “democratic” imperial countries had become convinced that colonialism gave them material gains. But worse was to come. During the Second World War, the German authorities saw to it that even ordinary soldiers could get direct benefit of individual plunder. Hermann Goering made a special point of this. Through the ordinary post, the soldiers in the occupied countries could send home what they had been able to get their hands on from the subjugated people. At the same time, the German state exploited the occupied countries and gave a small portion of the proceeds directly to the German people. As the occupied countries around Germany sunk to poverty and starvation the German people lived better than any other people on the continent. Plunder was institutionalised to keep the living standard of the Germans on a “ruling race” level. (When it rains on the hen it drips on the chicken.)
I am rather convinced that Hitler would have got a clear majority in fair and free German elections even in the early spring of 1945. The propaganda was efficient. The belief in ultimate “wonder weapons” general. Nearly every man drafted to the army had in the East also been directed to participate in the “cleansing” and have his hands bloodied in Nazi war crimes. Thus he had a fear that he would be subject to reprisals if and when Hitler lost. The Allied air-war had taken a great toll of civilian lives (without damaging the German war effort very much). The Nazi party relief service for the victims of the air-war functioned extremely well (you can read about that in the Victor Klemperer diaries).
The Nazi regime was genocidal. The horrors of the crimes it committed are real. But it had an efficient ideological indoctrination and at the same time as it managed to make the ordinary Germans in the army accomplices in some of the worst excesses it kept the living standard of the people relatively high by exploiting the occupied countries. Throughout the period the intellectual and bureaucratic elite – often despising the vulgarity of the Nazis – and existing high above the ordinary people worked out the guide-lines that later – when the Nazi regime had collapsed but the German state once more was dominant in central Europe – were to become the frame work of what is now called the European Union. The upper-class German elite did not lose the war.
It was this situation that later made the political work of communists and other anti-Nazis so very difficult in that Soviet occupation zone that was to become the German Democratic Republic. I discussed this in the beginning of the fifties with very candid comrades I had met already during the war. Western Germany of course was different; there the old Nazis were at the helm during the Adenauer years. At that time communists and people like me could there be jailed for thinking and writing out of order. When travelling by train through West Germany at that time I was careful to keep newspapers and other material in German from the German Democratic Republic out of sight in the compartment.
The economic crisis is deepening. The corporative compromise by which the reformists during the post-war years assured the masses of a certain security has tumbled. Against this there are mass protests even in the United States. Of course there are violent protests in countries like Greece and Spain that are not only hard hit by the crisis but victims of the new offensive by the European Union. There the unemployment rate goes up towards that of the German Weimar Republic 1932. People are desperate. They struggle. But they are disorganized. The one European political force that looks willing and able to take over is now as in the early nineteen thirties the well organized extreme right. The daughter of Le Pen today in “Front National” takes up questions that are close to the masses while the French “Left” is unable to talk in class terms and does not dare to open its mouth to state the necessity of smashing their corrupt state and its decaying economy.
The situation I am describing is not new. The genocide of the North American autochthonous “Indian” population got its modern legal framework when the Indian Removal Act was signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830. This Removal Act had strong support because it gave access to land.
Through the following decades there was an intense and growing conflict about these lands between the slave states that needed them for cotton as their original lands had become arid through over exploitation (Georgia was thus changing from cotton production to being a stud state for breeding slaves) and the new settlers from Europe. During the civil war this was decided by the the Homestead Act of 1862, that was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. He who was 21, white or freed slave and had never taken up arms against the United States could claim a federal land grant.
This was considered a progressive law. It gave the immigrants fleeing from the despotism in Europe a chance for a new life. The act created a class of independent farmers that became a pillar for the form of republic that was shaped by the victory of the North in the Civil war. But that act was at the same time a phase of a genocidal land grab policy that saw its end the 29 December 1890 with the massacre at Wounded Knee that finalized the armed resistance of the autochthonous so called “Indians” whose land had been grabbed.
This is relevant to us. The latter part of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth saw great class struggles in the United States. The First International became a strong political force in the United States. Time upon time from the sixties in the nineteenth century onwards towards our times the mass trade unions and working class organizations rose to shake the dominant capitalist society. And time upon time then they were smashed. The United States labour movement has a heroic history that should be studied.
But we have to understand that these movements had been made possible by a genocide. The revolutionary refugee from the defeat in Europe organized his brethren, the workers, for a socialist future in a free bourgeois democracy made possible by the dispossessing and killing of the original people. That is a historical dichotomy we have to see and understand.
The imperialist countries are now in their worst economic and political crisis since the early nineteen-thirties. As I write this the Spanish people that suffered a horrible defeat in 1939 now have an unemployment rate of 21.5%, close to that of Germany at the end of the Weimar republic and the “seizure of power” by Hitler on 30 January 1933.
There is a difference though. In 1933 the working class organizations that were defeated in Germany were strong. Today the old organizations in Spain as in all our countries seem weak, disorganized and there are now not only the traditional ethnic differences as immigration has created new ones. But the working class and its allies are not muted, class struggle is objectively getting sharper and there are new types of mass organizations taking form. In the short run the situation is open ended.
Looking at the United State, not to speak of Great Britain and France, and comparing them to what they were when they seemed to rule the world, they surely are becoming paper tigers. But as chairman Mao said paper tigers have very real claws and these are changing the imperialist wars.
The new imperialist wars in these last decades have some characteristics of their own. The wars and intrigues are aimed at not only winning but to fundamentally smash states like Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya. Just now it seems that the attempt will be to liquidate also Iran and Syria as state entities. This is a new quality.
These wars are not just “normal” colonial or imperialist wars to get control over natural resources and markets. Of course there are economic reasons, oil for instance, but to that comes another interest. These are wars aimed at liquidating the very state structure of countries that by developing a certain independence can be seen as a hindrance by the United States imperialists and their subsidiaries or rivals. If you compare total economic costs and gains by the United States in their Iraqi war you will find the seemingly irrational fact that even though many sections of the ruling class have made fabulous profit from the war the total cost for the United States by far outnumbers the gains. Still the war is a rational war for the United States imperialism.
That imperialist and colonial wars have been cruel, that the troops behave in a de-humanizing way is not new. Any descriptions of war from these last centuries give example of this. The ruling classes have in certain types of wars – colonial or civil wars – used the most despicable methods. That is not unknown.
You in India know this well. You have read about the British reprisals during and after what they called “the mutiny”! Also today in the war against the people, governmental forces use methods such as rape as a counter-insurgency weapon. Such organized rape is not a question of male lust and sexuality; it is consciously used to denigrate. To try to break the pride of the people.
The specificity of colonial wars and of the Nazi war methods – especially in the East – was that these methods were used regularly; rape and torture were political weapons. Acts of rape and torture and murder for private reasons on the other hand were not allowed. They were considered criminal. In Nazi occupied Europe individual killing of a Jew was punished according to the law. Individual gratification of sadistic lust in a concentration camp was severely punished. In that Himmler was strict. (Something that the Hollywood films do not seem to know.)
Here the United States in its wars this last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan shows a new quality. The SS tortured and raped in the course of duty. The abuses of detainees at Abu Ghraib, the peeing on dead enemies in Afghanistan, the ritual torture in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base are signs of a different army culture than that of Himmler’s SS.
But still more important is the conscious attempt to achieve a destruction of the nation. In Iraq the United States intentionally attempted – and to a large extent succeeded – to uproot and stamp out the very history and tradition of Iraq. The looting and destruction of museums and libraries of the highest world importance, the use of the army to raze some of the oldest and most valuable historical sites in the world, the planned decimation, killing off of Iraqi intellectuals were all policies to liquidate a state that by showing signs of developing on its own was considered becoming a threat to the regional hegemony of the United States. The United States is using the same type of methods as those Rome used against Carthage. For the same reason.
The American Century lasted more or less a century – from the Spanish-American war in 1898 until these present years. In those parts where the empire directly tried to establish itself – South America, South East Asia, East Asia – the memories of violence and lust will be painful. The areas where the empire tried to reach suzerainty and cultural dominance as Europe, the dominance is receding, but still there. We all, with shame, will remember our cringing, servile politicians and academics. If the working class and its allies in this stage will be able to save us from being drawn deep down in a maelstrom created by the downward spin of the United States Empire is an open question.
We can and must work and organize. We do so with the same bitter hope in a dark age that drove the members of the Resistance during the Nazi occupation in Europe and the Chinese patriots – communists and their allies – during the Japanese “kill all” period in China. The goal is clearly visible but we cannot be sure how long the struggle will have to take in this bitter epoch when the paper tiger is on the rampage. Only our descendants in a future near or far will know the answer to that.