Only 23 Labour MPs opposed war in Parliament on 17 September — fewer than the 38 who opposed in 1990 when Saddam Hussein not only had a bigger arsenal but had just used it against Kuwait. All the big political parties, all the major newspapers, all the chief political pundits, are for war.
How can Britain be dragged so easily into war? How, when modern communications give far more information about the realities of war than in previous epochs? How, when mass international communications, travel, migration, and education have etched away the prejudice and ignorance which feed nationalism?
The solution to these riddles is closely linked to the answer to another problem: if not by US-led war against him, how can we deal with Saddam? What else can we do about a dictator who, having massacred so many of his own country’s people, will have no scruples about using a deadly arsenal whenever he can?
The basic truth determining both questions is this: so long as capitalist ruling classes remain ruling classes, they can and will wage war. War is endemic to capitalism, as bosses use their nation-states to pursue their cut-throat competition for profits.
Once a ruling class has decided, in its own circles, that the chances of victory are good enough to risk war, demonstrations and protests will not stop it. On launching war, it can appeal to all the instincts of nationalism to rally the doubters. Cruder nationalist prejudices have been eroded, but nationalism rests on more than those prejudices. Because bourgeois society makes the nation a basic unit of economic life, language, communications, and social institutions, nationality becomes a natural-seeming part of human identity.
The only collective identity powerful enough in modern society to challenge the nation is class. But if the working class has already come to identify as a class-for-itself, with a sense of its class purpose transcending national divisions, then capitalist power is already tottering.
The ruling class generally does have a developed class consciousness. But that acts in favour of the war government. When the chips are down capitalists side with their state, their “executive committee of the ruling class”. The consequent impotence of bourgeois pacifism was illustrated in World War 1 by William Jennings Bryan, leader of the radical wing of the Democratic Party. “If war should come”, he declared soon before the USA joined the war, in April 1917, “we will all support the government of course; yet at this moment it is our sacred duty to do all in our power to preserve the nation from the horrors of war”.
In 1990-1, the same lesson was illustrated by the wretchedness of Labour’s “soft left”, people like Clare Short and Robin Cook. Because their policy was one of pleas to the powers-that-be, limited by reassurances that they would come into line once war started, they were left helplessly trailing behind those powers when they decided to go for war. They were for staying with economic sanctions and diplomacy against Iraq — until war started. They were against the destruction by bombing of Iraq’s cities — until it started. They were for limiting the war aims to the recapture of Kuwait — until the allies went further. They were against the US-led armes going beyond Kuwait, and crossing the border into Iraq — until they did.
None of this means that demonstrations against war are pointless. If the ruling class is seriously divided, demonstrations may deter a move to war. In all cases the demonstrations — and the work of socialists to build the demonstrations and explain political issues to the demonstrators — help build the socialist labour movement which can take revenge on the ruling class for their wars.
What of Saddam? The threat he poses can best be removed by his overthrow by the people of Iraq. Sanctions and bombs, strengthening the Iraqi people’s instinct to rally round against a foreign aggressor, will hinder that. Our answer to Saddam is solidarity with the Iraqi and Kurdish resistance to his dictatorship.
Watertight US control of the Middle East would restrain war — rather (with all due qualifications) as Kremlin control over the USSR stopped wars such as those in Chechnya and Armenia-Azerbaijan. In the first place, though, such overlord-control is oppressive. Secondly, it could be enforced only through war — long and bloody war. Thirdly, it could not be stable in the long term; and when empires decay, as they must, they breed war. The only serious long-term answer to war is the working-class struggle for socialism — for a world based on solidarity and cooperation.