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An alternative to a world of wars

October 25, 2002 | Page 11

ELIZABETH SCHULTE argues that socialism is the alternative to a world of poverty and war.

MORE AND more people are standing up in opposition to George W. Bush's war on Iraq. The October 26 demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco will be the latest examples of a vibrant antiwar movement in the making.

Opponents of this war have come to their conclusions for any number of reasons. For many, their opposition begins with the horror that the U.S. government has in store for the people of Iraq. For others, there are doubts about Bush's real war aims--a recognition that the White House's rhetoric about "liberation" is a cover for protecting U.S. oil profits.

Both points are true. But our understanding of this war shouldn't stop with just one or the other. At the heart of it is Washington's drive to expand U.S. power around the globe--and not only military power, but American political and economic power, as well.

With its attack on Iraq, the U.S. government wants to send a warning--not just to Saddam Hussein and others in the Middle East, but to its allies in Europe and elsewhere--that the U.S. is in charge. And anyone who steps out of line will suffer the consequences.

That warning is at the heart of every military intervention that Washington carries out--whether it claims to be defending the U.S. from Saddam's "weapons of mass destruction" or going after "terrorists" and a regime that "harbors them" in Afghanistan.

That's why antiwar activists who believe that the movement shouldn't connect the impending war on Iraq with the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan last year should think again. They have put themselves in the position of saying that U.S. imperialism can sometimes be good--when it seeks revenge for an attack on "our" people--and other times, it's bad. No war should be looked at on the terms that the U.S. says its fighting for--or in isolation from wars that has come before it.

This is where socialist politics are important--because they provide an understanding of how wars are inevitable under the capitalist economic system. Wars are the outcome of economic rivalries among the world's great powers, break out into political conflicts and then into outright military conflict.

In smaller conflicts, like the 1991 Gulf War, powerful states like the U.S. may be defending their spheres of influence and sending a message to anyone who might challenge them. But at the heart of every war is the competition for economic and military supremacy.

As New York Times columnist and free-market champion Thomas Friedman wrote in 1998, "For globalization to work, America can't be afraid to act like the almighty superpower that it is. The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15, and the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley's technology is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps."

This is why socialists aren't pacifists--in the sense that pacifists typically believe that the cause of war is human beings' warlike nature. But it's not in the nature of human beings to go to war. It's in the nature of those who hold power in society to send working people to war.

For the same reason, socialists don't believe that we can end wars by convincing our leaders not to declare them. The only successful antiwar movements have been those that build mass struggles to challenge war.

Ultimately, we can't end wars unless we get rid of a society that creates the conditions for war--capitalism. "To condemn war is easy," wrote the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, "to overcome it is difficult."

"The struggle against war is a struggle against the classes which rule society and which hold in their hands both its productive forces and its destructive weapons. It is not possible to prevent war by moral indignation, by meetings, by resolutions, by newspaper articles and by congresses. As long as the bourgeoisie has at its command the banks, the factories, the land, the press and the state apparatus, it will always be able to drive the people to war when its interests demand it. But the propertied classes never cede power without a struggle."

During revolutionary situations, workers get a glimpse of the possibilities for a world free of war and national rivalries. For example, days after the workers of Paris rose up to establish the Paris Commune of 1871, the Communards had torn down the city's Victory Column as a symbol of national chauvinism.

Likewise, the desire to end national divisions and create a society built on solidarity was at the heart of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Radicalized by the carnage of the First World War, Russian workers led an insurrection that overthrew the tyrannical Tsar--and created the first workers' government. One of its most important accomplishments was to end to Russia's involvement in the war.

The Russian workers' state represented an alternative to a system that thrives on economic exploitation and breeds war and violence. It gave glimpse of a new world of real democracy, with working-class people making the decisions about how society would be run. That's why all of the world's most powerful countries, including the U.S., sent their armies to snuff out the workers' government in Russia.

Ultimately, real socialism was strangled in Russia--leaving in power a state bureaucracy, led by Joseph Stalin, that ruled in the name of workers to cover a new society of exploitation and oppression.

Nevertheless, the experience of the Russian Revolution--along with all of the working-class revolts and upheavals since--shows the potential for a different world.

If there is to be an end to war and the misery it wreaks around the globe, they then we must take seriously the old socialist slogan: "Workers of the World, Unite." The whole point of this slogan is that the world isn't divided, as our rulers would have us believe, between nations--but between two classes, a ruling class that profits from imperialist war and a working class that fights those wars.

Workers' power holds the key to creating a world free of war and exploitation. Building socialist organization today is the key to winning this world in the future.

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