In the fourth and final part in his series about the violence and barbarism of the capitalist class throughout history, Fred Weston looks at the contemporary crimes committed by the capitalists and the imperialists, including the degrading everyday violence that the capitalism enforces on ordinary people every day in terms of homelessness and hunger.
In the previous parts of this article we have seen the real face of the capitalist class, both its predatory nature on a global scale and its capacity for violent suppression of any mass popular revolt that challenges its right to rule. Some will say, yes but this was in the past; now the system has become more civilised and humane. Recent history shows that this is utterly false.
Cynical use of Islamic fundamentalism
We have seen how one form of Islamic fundamentalism, the Iranian type, was used to hijack a workers’ revolution in 1978 and crush those who had dared to change society. But there is another form, which was eventually to lead to formations such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS. They all have their origins in counter-revolution, and all of them have received backing and sponsorship at some point from western powers.
It is sufficient to look at the use of Islamic fundamentalist groups at present, and also to understand where these groups originated from, to see that bloody violent methods are still a useful tool in the arsenal of weapons at the disposal of the ruling classes, not just the Saudis or Qataris, but US imperialism, British imperialism, French imperialism and all the others.
There is a long history of the use of Islamic fundamentalism as a battering ram against revolution, going back to the early 20th century, but it was in the 1950s that the US government, and its agencies such as the CIA, saw in Islamic fundamentalism a useful reactionary force with which to combat progressive and left forces that had emerged in the Middle East and other parts of the world.
From the 1950s through to the 1970s there was a general shift to the left in many countries of Africa and Asia, producing in some cases regimes that leaned towards the Soviet Union, such as in Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia. In other countries there were radical left groups that emerged as powerful forces. In Egypt under Nasser the country moved in the direction of snuffing out capitalism altogether and leaned towards the Soviet Union for a period. This was in the context of the 1949 Chinese revolution, the 1959 Cuban revolution, the defeat of the US in Vietnam, the Afghan Saur revolution of 1978, the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979, all of which seemed to be shifting the balance against US imperialism and its allies.
All this alarmed the imperialists, the US in particular. That explains why in that period they backed and sponsored Islamic fundamentalist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, from which later even more extreme groups were to emerge. It thus became a key element in US foreign policy to foster such groups as a counterweight to the rising class struggle taking place. Both the CIA and the Pentagon supplied huge sums to these reactionary organisations. Such groups as the Jamaat-e-Islami groups were used, for example, in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, during the 1971 uprising of the Mukti Bahini freedom fighters, to systematically hunt down and kill Bengali worker and youth left activists. Hamas was sponsored by both Israel and the US as a counterweight to the PLO in the past, and so on.
In his book, Islam in India and Pakistan – A Religious History, (Vij Books India Pvt Ltd, 20 Feb 2016) Professor Y P Singh points out:
“Islamic fundamentalism provides a glaring example of imperialist hypocrisy. Now the USA and the imperialist West pose as the biggest enemy of Islamic fundamentalism and try to fool the working class in the West by presenting fundamentalism as a big challenge to world peace. But it was the same imperialism that used these fundamentalist forces against the left in various Muslim countries.
“In the 1950s and 1960s there was a rise of populist, anti-imperialist and class movements. The USA worked out a plan to patronise the fundamentalists in order to weaken these populist movements, which imperialism feared could end up in socialist revolutions. The CIA, under the guidance of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, established a liaison between fundamentalist parties in different countries. According to the plan, a network of Akwanul Muslameen popularly known as Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt), Hamas (Syria), Sarakat ul Islam (Indonesia), Islamic Salvation Front (Algeria) and Jamaat Islami (Pakistan) was established. These parties were given full economic and political support during that period.
“This process reached its peak during the 1980s, when thousands of militants or so-called Mujahideen were trained and sent to Afghanistan. The Jamaat Islami of Pakistan provided the main force, but the above-mentioned parties also sent their share. (…)
“In the Afghan war, thousands of guerrillas fought against the Afghan revolution at the command of the CIA and the Pentagon. Osama bin Laden was a hero then.”
Osama bin Laden confirmed his relationship to the CIA in an interview to AFP in August 1998, where he stated: “I set up my first camp in Pakistan where these volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis…”
When it was a question of trying to remove the Afghan regime that had emerged from the 1978 Saur revolution, Osama bin Laden and his mujahidin “freedom fighters” were hailed as heroes by the West. Ronald Reagan, US president in the early 1980s was full of praise for these people, the same people who went on to become the infamous Taliban who ruled Afghanistan with ruthless methods after the Soviet forces withdraw and the regime collapsed. It was here that Al-Qaeda got a base and then later spread to other countries. ISIS emerged out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.
Has the bourgeois lost the habit?
To say that all this is in the past and no longer applies today is naïve to say the least. In Syria, the US were still backing some of these Islamic groups only a few months ago, among them the various Al-Qaeda affiliated organisations such as Jabhat al Nusra, Ahrar al Sham and a myriad of smaller Islamic groups such as the Nour al Din al Zinki brigades. They have also granted tacit support to ISIS. For example, John Kerry recently admitted in leaked audios that the US was counting on ISIS advances to push Assad to come to the negotiating table.
What was the purpose of supporting such groups in Syria and why did they get involved with these groups in the first place? The answer can be found in the Arab Spring of 2011. When the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions overthrew decades-long despotic dictatorships – “friends of the west” – the imperialists could not intervene directly, so powerful was the mass movement. However, in Libya and then Syria they saw the opportunity to cut across the revolutionary wave that had been spreading out across the whole region. In Libya they bombed the country and now it has sunk into barbarism and chaos. This method was then used in Syria, where initially there had been a genuine revolutionary upsurge of the youth. What there was of genuine revolution was very quickly snuffed out. In stepped regimes like the Saudis and Qataris, who backed and financed some of the most barbaric and ruthless of the Islamic fundamentalist groups.
The end result of all this is utter barbarism with hundreds of thousands killed and millions made homeless. To the ruling elites of the Gulf States this barbarism and chaos is preferable to revolution. But the European powers and the US have a big responsibility in all this. They set in motion the process that was to lead to this situation by going into Iraq back in 2003. They did so by lying to their own people about the weapons that Saddam Hussein was supposed to have. In the course of the war and the period that followed, up to a million people lost their lives.
The only ones to gain from the Iraq war – as we saw in the previous section of this article – were the big multinational corporations who sell weapons. An article, 10 companies profiting the most from war, published in USA Today in 2013, explains that, “The business of war is profitable. In 2011, the 100 largest contractors sold $410 billion in arms and military services. Just 10 of those companies sold over $208 billion.”
The everyday violence of capitalist society
The present article does not exhaust the long list of crimes against humanity carried out in the name of profit. It has only touched on some of the most well-known revolutionary events in history that were later drowned in blood. There are many, many more from the history, not only of Europe, but also of Latin America, Africa and Asia that are too numerous to list. Suffice it to say that the capitalist class globally has shown many times that it is prepared to use violence and cause terrible bloodshed in the defence of its profits and privileges.
However, their violence is not just the most evident that appears in times of wars and revolutions and counter-revolutions. Their violence is perpetrated every day in every corner of the globe in the workplaces. “Over one million work-related deaths occur annually according to ILO estimates and hundreds of millions of workers suffer from workplace accidents and occupational exposure to hazardous substances worldwide…” according to the ILO. And according to the World Health Organisation, An estimated 12.6 million deaths each year are attributable to unhealthy environments. “The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 795 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2014-2016.” (Hunger Notes)
There is the violence of having to work long hours for low wages, the humiliation of having to buckle under and do as you are told, for fear of losing your job. There is the fear of being evicted, the fear of not having health facilities if you fall ill. All this is the violence of the bourgeoisie, and it is going on as you read this article.
Twenty million people presently face the threat of starvation, in Nigeria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen, but if you look at the reasons for this, one sees that although in some areas harvests have not been good, the threat of death by starvation is due to manoeuvres by this or that imperialist power, this or that local power – see the role of Saudi Arabia for instance – or conflicts within local ruling elites. In order to hold on to power, the people at the top are prepared to unleash this barbarism. And this will continue to go on so long as this system survives.
What about the Soviet gulags?
We can expect a lot of objections to the arguments raised in this article, and one of these will be to list those who died in the Gulags of Stalin. To this we answer that the first to die in Stalin’s Gulags were Communists. Many old Bolsheviks perished, including most of the Bolshevik party leadership that led the October Revolution. The infamous Moscow Trials were organised to eliminate all voices of dissent within the party and the country. We have published The Trotskyists in Stalin’s concentration camps – An eyewitness account of the strike at Vorkuta which describes the killings that took place.
What we would add here is that this violence, again, was violence to defend the privileged, this time not a propertied class, but the Stalinist bureaucratic caste that had come to power usurping the political power achieved by the working class in 1917. It is not by chance that decades later in 1991 the heirs of Stalin, the bureaucrats that governed the Soviet Union, were to lead the process of a return to capitalist relations where they transformed themselves into property owning capitalists.
Those who have nothing to be ashamed of are the followers of the ideas of Leon Trotsky, who did not bend to the pressure at the time, but maintained a principled stand throughout. Trotsky paid a big price for this, first seeing his sons and daughters killed one after another, (see My Daughter’s Suicide – Open Letter On Stalin’s Role in the Death of Zinaida Volkov, January 1933), together with many of his party comrades, and finally being assassinated by an agent of Stalin in 1940 in Mexico.
The Stalinist bureaucracy defended its interests as a caste standing above society with the most brutal methods. We condemn those methods and stand with the victims who tried to stop the Stalinist counter-revolution, but we do not stand with the western bourgeois who condemn the Soviet Union because it was based on the nationalised, planned economy established by the Russian Revolution.
Did Lenin consider peaceful transformation?
Ultra-left simpletons believe that what is required is to shout about violent, bloody revolution, armed struggle, etc., and present revolutionary methods as necessarily violent. That way their revolutionary credentials are guaranteed. They ignore the fact that Marx, Engels and Lenin at different times considered a peaceful transition to socialism, depending on the concrete conditions of each country and situation.
The same Lenin who wrote, “The supersession of the bourgeois state by the proletarian state is impossible without a violent revolution” in The State and Revolution, in August/September 1917, that is during a crucial moment of the Russian Revolution, also looked at the conditions where peaceful transition would be possible. Just a few months later, in April 1918 he wrote “Left-wing Childishness and the petty-bourgeois mentality”, where he looked at Marx’s view that in certain conditions a peaceful transformation of society was possible.
After the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx drew certain conclusions about the nature of future socialist revolutions. In a letter to Kugelmann he wrote, “If you look at the last chapter of my Eighteenth Brumaire you will find that I say that the next attempt of the French revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it, and this is essential for every real people’s revolution on the Continent.” (Marx to Dr Kugelmann Concerning the Paris Commune, April 12-17, 1871)
And yet, the same Marx in an interview a few months later stated the following: “In England, for instance, the way to show political power lies open to the working class. Insurrection would be madness where peaceful agitation would more swiftly and surely do the work. In France, a hundred laws of repression and a mortal antagonism between classes seem to necessitate the violent solution of social war.” (Karl Marx in Interview with Karl Marx Head of L’Internationale, published in the New York World, July 18, 1871)
As we can see, Marx did not lay down a rigid rule on this question, that could be applied to all situations and all countries. But let us look at the conditions in which such peaceful transformation could take place. In Left-wing Childishness and the petty-bourgeois mentality Lenin, writing about the conditions in Britain in the 1870s, stated the following:
“The subordination of the capitalists to the workers in Britain would have been assured at that time owing to the following circumstances: (1) the absolute preponderance of workers, of proletarians, in the population owing to the absence of a peasantry (in Britain in the seventies there was hope of an extremely rapid spread of socialism among agricultural labourers); (2) the excellent organisation of the proletariat in trade unions (Britain was at that time the leading country in the world in this respect); (3) the comparatively high level of culture of the proletariat, which had been trained by centuries of development of political liberty; (4) the old habit of the well-organised British capitalists of settling political and economic questions by compromise—at that time the British capitalists were better organised than the capitalists of any country in the world (this superiority has now passed to Germany). These were the circumstances which at that time gave rise to the idea that the peaceful subjugation of the British capitalists by the workers was possible.”
Those conditions did not apply to Russia in 1917, where the proletariat, far from being “preponderant”, was a very small minority. This goes a long way to explaining the bloody civil war that ensued. The other important element is also the isolation of the Russian Revolution, which allowed imperialism to throw everything it could at the revolution. Had the revolution broken out in Germany, things would have been very different. Lenin makes this very point in Left-wing Childishness and the petty-bourgeois mentality when he states:
“A successful proletarian revolution in Germany would immediately and very easily smash any shell of imperialism (which unfortunately is made of the best steel, and hence cannot be broken by the efforts of any… chicken) and would bring about the victory of world socialism for certain, without any difficulty, or with slight difficulty—if, of course, by “difficulty” we mean difficult on a world historical scale, and not in the parochial philistine sense.”
Had the German Revolution followed on in 1918 – as it could have done if one looks at the history – the Russian Civil War would have been cut across and much violence would have been avoided. The violence was not a foregone conclusion and was not something the Bolsheviks desired. It was forced on them by the way things panned out concretely. The Bolsheviks would have much preferred to begin the task of building up the Soviet economy. There was much discussion and debate in early 1918 about the different methods that could be adopted, including joint ventures with foreign and Russian capitalists, concessions and so on. Lenin even considered the possibility of buying out capitalists and bringing the best of them on board to use their skills in developing Russian industry. But the Civil war ruled this out and all the resources had to be concentrated on winning the war.
Returning to the conditions Lenin outlines for Britain in the 1870s, what we have to consider here is that Britain at that time was the most developed capitalist country in the world, with the strongest and most organised working class. As Lenin put it, “the absolute preponderance of workers, of proletarians, in the population” was one of the key elements. Today the conditions described by Lenin in reference to Britain in the 1870s are no longer an exception, but the norm in vast areas of the globe. Thus, some of the conditions that existed in 1870s Britain, apply even more today.
Are Marxists in favour of violence?
The capitalists and their media like to present Marxists as wanting violent revolution. They do this while pretending they are for non-violent methods themselves. They surely must be aware of the irony of what they are saying! The bourgeoisie is the most destructive and violent of all ruling classes that have ever appeared in history, as this article amply demonstrates. All history confirms that no ruling class has ever given up its wealth, power and privileges without a fight—and a bloody one at that.
The truth is that Marxists do not advocate violence. We take part in elections, support mass workers’ party and aim to get representatives elected where we have the forces to do so. At the same time, however, we do not sow illusions in the peaceful nature of the bourgeoisie. When their vital interests are at risk, the dictatorship of the banks and big corporations shows its real face. We saw this in Britain during the miners’ strike in the 1980s when thousands of police were deployed in a violent manner to crush the strike. We have seen it on a much bigger scale throughout this article. The same bourgeoisie which likes to present itself as democratic and reasonable can very easily resort to violent repression when needed.
In a bourgeois democracy we have the superficial trappings of the “rule of the people”, but in reality everything is geared to defending the interests of a handful of bankers and capitalists. Their voices carry much more weight than millions of ordinary working people. It is sufficient to see what they are doing to the National Health Service in Britain today and other countries. It is in the interests of ordinary people that more funding be provided to make it an efficient service. Instead it is being run down in preparation for privatisation. This will only benefit the few and not the many. Where is the democracy in this?
We have shown abundantly clearly that the capitalist class of all countries is not opposed to violence per se. The violence they abhor is that of the workers and exploited masses when they defend themselves against the violent repression meted about by the forces of the state. This was the position that Kerensky found himself in back in 1917, when he expressed the idea that he could not come out with force against the reactionaries, but when it came to re-establishing order that was another matter. In the second volume of his History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky explains Kerensky’s position:
“When Kerensky reiterated that he did not wish to be the Marat of the Russian revolution, that meant that he would refuse to take severe measures against the reaction, but not so against ‘anarchy.’ Generally speaking, by the way, that is the moral of the opponents of violence in politics: they renounce violence when it comes to introducing changes in what already exists, but in defense of the existing order they will not stop at the most ruthless acts.” (Chapter 29, Kerensky and Kornilov)
Thus, we see here two weights and two measures. When those wishing to put an end to centuries of class oppression rise up then no measure to put them down is considered too severe, but when it comes to reactionary forces rising up against revolution, they are left to do their work and violence – that is the violence of the workers – suddenly becomes “unacceptable”. No wonder then that “Kerensky became the especially beloved figure of the possessing classes.” (ibid.)
Returning to the Bolsheviks: were they guilty of using violent methods? The answer to that is, of course they were “guilty”, just as the slaves who rose up under the leadership of Spartacus were guilty of violence against the Roman slave-owners, or the peasants were guilty of violence against the feudal landowners in the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt in England when they banded together and turned on the landowners, burning down their houses, killing some of the more unpopular ones, while others were captured and humiliated.
However, it does not have to be like this. Society has gone through several phases of development, slavery giving way to feudalism in Europe, and in turn feudalism giving way to capitalism. These passages from one form of society to another were not peaceful affairs. The classes who held power refused to accept the will of the people. If the rich and powerful would graciously exit the stage of history then the passage to the new society would be a peaceful one. Unfortunately, they are rather attached to their lives of luxury and opulence and will not go without a fight.
It is for fear of such violent reaction that the reformists within the labour movement always advise “moderation”. Of course it is only the working people who must maintain this dignified moderation. By this what is meant is that in the face of draconian cuts to healthcare, education, housing, wages and pensions, the workers are supposed to grin and bear it.
A recently published Rowntree Foundation report has shown that in Britain the number of people living below the poverty line has increased from 15 to 19 million in the past six years, as wages have not kept up with inflation. This is part of the “molecular process of revolution” as Trotsky put it. At some point, under these pressures, the working class will reach its limit. And unfortunately for the ladies and gentlemen of the ruling class, history shows that when that limit is reached the working class springs into action in an attempt to hold on to what it has gained and to change society in the process.
Moderation at times of acute class conflict only leads to one thing, violence, the violence of the capitalist class. How can this be avoided? There is a force in society that is far stronger than even the most powerful state: the working class once it is organized and mobilized to change society.
How could a peaceful transition be guaranteed? Certainly not by holding back the working class and appealing for moderation. All of history shows this.
Today the working class is not a minority as it was in Russia in 1917. On a global scale, the working class has never been so strong, both numerically and in terms of its specific weight within society. The majority of the world population now lives in cities. “54 per cent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 66 per cent by 2050”, according to a UN report. There are around 400million metal workers alone, and the overall world workforce is now around 2.5bn. If you add to these children, non-working partners, pensioners, etc., the working class is clearly the majority on a worldwide scale.
In the advanced industrialised countries, the weight of the working class – by this we mean wage workers – is even greater. In the advanced capitalist countries, such as Britain for example, 75% of the working population is employed for a wage, thus making “wage labour” the overwhelming majority of society. If there were a revolutionary leadership of the working class, this force could be mobilised to paralyse the whole system, and there is no state force of repression that can hold back the whole of the working population once mobilised. We have seen revolutions that have mobilised such massive forces, that the most oppressive of regimes have collapsed like houses of cards. Imagine what would be possible in the most industrialised countries of the world if the working class were mobilised in such a manner. No force on earth could stop it!
As we have explained in an earlier article, “A peaceful transformation of society would be entirely possible if the trade union and reformist leaders were prepared to use the colossal power in their hands to change society. If the workers leaders did not do this, then there could be rivers of blood, and this would entirely be the responsibility of the reformist leaders.”
Thus, the only way of guaranteeing the most peaceful transition possible is to use the full might of the organised working class. If a revolutionary party and leadership stood at the head of the working class, when the conditions are ripe a general strike could be called, bringing out workers in all economic sectors, who would occupy their workplaces. An appeal would also be issued to the students and school students to occupy their places of study. Faced with such a mass mobilisation there would be no force that could stop the workers. In fact, the revolutionary mood would also affect the lower layers of the police and army. All revolutions show that this happens. Many ordinary rank and file police and soldiers emanate from the working class, and once the class they come from moves in a decisive manner some layers would instinctively be drawn to that movement.
In Chile 1973 it is not at all by chance that the bulk of the troops were held in the barracks and only a minority of elite corps were used to carry out the repression. That was possible, not because the working class was weak, but because it had been disarmed politically by its own leadership.
It is not the revolutionary Marxists who work for violent overthrow of the present system. On the contrary, we work to create the most favourable conditions for the taking of power by the working class in as peaceful a manner as possible. That means, however, that the full force of the class must be mobilised. The overwhelming power of the organised working class pulling behind other oppressed layers of society would be an unstoppable force. Not to fully mobilise it, as the reformists in the movements advocate, only prepares the conditions for a violent suppression of the workers as they strive to change society.
History has confirmed this over and over again. It is time to draw the lessons of the past. Not to do so, would mean, in the long run, a terrible defeat not just for the working class, but for the whole of humanity. It would unleash barbarism of unimaginable proportions. It is the task of the Marxists to explain this and struggle to win first the advanced layers and then the whole class to the programme of Marxism. There is no nobler task than this today.