A few days ago Arthur, David Mc. and I went along to a Socialist Alternative event at Trades Hall. It had been advertised as a panel discussion on “Australian militarism“
The general position was that WW1, WW11, the Vietnam War, the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan were/are all pretty much the same war. Not much to think about really. It’s all just imperialism and racism, capitalists grabbing resources , expanding markets, seizing territory, seeking strategic superiority. I was initially surprised about the attitude to WW2, but realised after a while that it was necessary for consistency. They have a simple theory about how the world works, and everything must fit it. No need to analyse any particular world event, the position is just given.
(For the record though, I should mention that Harry Van Moorst (who was on the panel) actually gave an interesting talk about his experience in the anti-Vietnam war movement, and although he didn’t mention WW2, I’d say that he’d be unlikely to agree that it was just another imperialist war. His talk was lively and lacked the contrived tone of the other talks. )
I don’t usually pay much attention to the various revolutionary sects which continue to exist on the fringes of the pseudo-left because they are largely politically irrelevant. However it’s worth popping in to one of their “events” once in a while, just to remind oneself of what can happen when “Marxism” is embraced as a religion. (I hesitated to use the word “Marxism” in that last sentence, but I couldn’t quickly think of a better way to put it. Clearly, calling oneself a Marxist and peppering everything one says with references to “class struggle”, “imperialism” , “capitalist crisis” and so on, has very little to do with Marxism. It brings to mind what Marx apparently said (to Lafargue)
in frustration about the French “Marxists”: “All I know is that I am not a Marxist
The truly amazing thing about the meeting (which was attended by about 50 people) was the sheer fervour of it. After the panel members had spoken, the chairwoman announced that it was now “discussion time” .But there was no discussion. It turned out that what is meant by discussion means something pretty much like ‘bearing witness”. People just took turns to stand up and “speak out”. . One after the other, people took turns to denounce evil (imperialism), and make a public display of their commitment to (I’m not sure what ). No-one showed the slightest interest in discussing anything, let alone questioning the position taken by any of the panelists
There was one exception, and that was when Arthur got his turn. He began with a simple remark about the fact that despite the widespread opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there’s no real anti-war movement. It has never gone beyond a diffuse and incomprehending anti-war sentiment. He drew a contrast with the anti-war movement during the Vietnam era and said (something like) “surely you might want to consider that you’ve got something wrong?”. At that point it was very clear that he wasn’t adhering to the spirit of the gathering so the chairwoman attempted to shut him up, by saying “I think you’ve said enough”. Arthur had been speaking for only about one minute at this point. He managed to continue just a bit longer only by pointing out that the fact that he had been one of the most notorious of the leaders of the anti-Vietnam war movement, was surely reason enough to let him finish what he had to say. In the extra few minutes that he was grudgingly allowed, he added a bit to what Harry van Moorst had said, in particular that during the Vietnam war, the reason that a powerful anti-war movement had developed was because people had been able to move from being “against war” to being on the side of the Vietnamese people, and wanting the US to be defeated. The interesting thing is that today’s anti-war movement began with HUGE demonstrations which became steadily smaller, whereas the anti-Vietnam war movement developed over many years from something very small, to a huge movement with real teeth. The reverse trajectories indicate a significant difference. The opposition to the war in Vietnam was the result of a huge amount of debate and argument whereas the opposition to the war in Iraq has always been no more than a sort of default, anti-war sentiment.
There was a minor ruckus after Arthur sat down, when one of the panelists Diane Fieldes (described as “Long term campaigner against the war on terror” ) jumped up to reply. She began carrying on about how it was obvious that the war in Iraq was just another imperialist war, while completely ignoring Arthur’s point about the anti-Vietnam war movement having grown up because people were actually able to support (and identify with) “the enemy”. I couldn’t resist interjecting with “which side are you on then?”. To which she replied quite angrily, “the resistance”(!!) After a few minutes of back and forth on this, we were pretty much silenced. Perhaps some people there would have been interested in hearing a bit more about what we thought, but there was no sign of that. The main response was just a bit of muted hissing, booing, muttering
‘Nuff said, really. These people have sunk to the position of not only regarding WW2 as a war not worth fighting, but actually advocating support for mass murdering jihadists in Iraq…. How deluded can you become???
All discussion was stifled at this point. Announcements were made about various postering campaigns, people put their names down on tsak lists which were passed around the room, and then everyone sat around eating pizza.
Arthur, David and I tried to talk informally to a couple of people, not so much about their views on Iraq and Afghanistan, but about the refusal to actually *argue* about it. They didn’t seem to get it. The whole notion seemed entirely alien.
The (1890) letter to C. Schmidt in which Engels wrote: “Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French “Marxists” of the late 70s: “All I know is that I am not a Marxist.”, contains the following paragraph:
“In general, the word “materialistic” serves many of the younger writers in Germany as a mere phrase with which anything and everything is labeled without further study, that is, they stick on this label and then consider the question disposed of. But our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian. All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be examined individually before the attempt is made to deduce them from the political, civil law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc., views corresponding to them. Up to now but little has been done here because only a few people have got down to it seriously. In this field we can utilize heaps of help, it is immensely big, anyone who will work seriously can achieve much and distinguish himself. But instead of this too many of the younger Germans simply make use of the phrase historical materialism (and everything can be turned into a phrase) only in order to get their own relatively scanty historical knowledge — for economic history is still as yet in its swaddling clothes! — constructed into a neat system as quickly as possible, and they then deem themselves something very tremendous. And after that a Barth can come along and attack the thing itself, which in his circle has indeed been degraded to a mere phrase”