Liberalism and Marxism

By Sam Marcy (Oct. 25, 1990)

Marxists differ from liberals in a fundamental way. Liberals seek to reform the system while Marxists try to abolish it. Marxism has demonstrated that liberalism is only a historical phase in the evolution of the capitalist system and alternates with periods of severe reaction. Marxists are in continual struggle with liberalism as a current of political thought.

However, Marxists and liberals often find themselves in the same camp on a variety of significant issues. Both may be seen at the same demonstrations protesting poverty, unemployment, homelessness, police brutality, and racist attacks against oppressed peoples.

Of course, it's the duty of any working class party to work together with all progressive currents in the struggle to mobilize the masses against political reaction.

The position of the liberals however is that poverty, racism, or the launching of most wars--like the present struggle over Kuwait and Iraq--is the result of erroneous policies which could be corrected by a newly elected administration of the government.

Was the long and bitter war in Vietnam just a mistaken policy.?

Vietnam War spanned four administrations

U.S. involvement in Vietnam began way back in the Eisenhower administration, after the defeat of the French at Dienbienphu. The liberals in this country thought that a change to a new Democratic administration would help correct this erroneous policy.

However, the Kennedy administration deepened the involvement of the U.S. in the war with the commitment of ground troops, to the great disappointment of the liberals. They then felt that a group of new advisers would help correct the unwise policy of supporting the Diem family, the hated rulers of South Vietnam. And so the Diems were overthrown in what was eventually acknowledged as a CIA operation, and a ``democratic'' regime installed.

The U.S. soon found itself mired down deeper and the response from the Pentagon was to widen the intervention.

The Johnson administration, of course, escalated U.S. intervention to a full-scale war. Johnson's announcement in 1968 that he would not seek another term made his replacement by the harder-line Nixon administration a virtual certainty.

The end result, as we all know now, was that the only solution was a military victory by the Vietnamese, who literally threw the U.S. forces out, with the help of a mass anti-war movement in the United States and around the world.

The difference between the Marxist and the liberal approach to the war was a fundamental one. The liberals then and now believe that it is only a matter of the policy of the government or governing group in the administration. But the governing group is only the executive committee of the ruling class, as Marx pointed out years ago, and inevitably responds to its class interests.

Marxists believe that the problem is not one of symptoms but of fundamental causes; that war grows out of the very nature of capitalism as a system of exploitation and oppression; that war is endemic to capitalism; that the drive towards imperialist adventures abroad is the result of systemic causes at home; that the very nature of the profit system, of the endless, ruthless, relentless struggle for profits and superprofits is the fundamental cause of war; that wars under capitalism are inevitable; and that periods of peace, even long and protracted ones, are merely intervals for the preparation of war.

This applies not only to the United States but to Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the other imperialist powers. Moreover, the imperialists do their work no matter whether the administration is led by a ``socialist'' like Mitterrand, a conservative like Kohl, a Democrat or a Republican.

But Marxists are not fatalists. They believe that the masses, through their revolutionary intervention, are not only able to change the course of the war, but can overturn the system.

Thus, while it is necessary and correct for Marxists to collaborate with liberals in the struggle against unemployment, poverty, homelessness, racism, and other evils of capitalism, there's a wide divergence on how to fight these ills. Marxists must maintain their independent, revolutionary class position, and not dissolve their program into an appendage of liberal politics.

It is, of course, a step forward for a worker to move away from reactionary politics and take on a progressive, so-called liberal position. That's another matter altogether and is a forward move.

Is conversion to peaceful industry possible?

Liberals think that with a change of administrations, military industry can be converted to civilian use. Thus, almost immediately after the Vietnam War, dozens of plans were drawn up by various liberal think tanks, including some unions involved in the war industry, to show how conversion could be accomplished. For a while it seemed that military expenditures would really be reduced and that these conversion plans were not only alluring but practical.

But the grim reality is that to this day military expenditures rise endlessly, whichever administration is in charge, even during the so-called peaceful intervals between wars.

Now that the Cold War is supposed to be over, the liberals have generated excitement that there will be a conversion to a peacetime economy, with a so-called peace dividend for the masses. But exactly the opposite is happening. More guns, more planes, more ships are being ordered at a time when the economy as a whole is contracting and layoffs have become the order of the day.

Liberalism as a method of social analysis proves itself unable to recognize reality. It leads the masses of people astray.

Liberalism in Western Europe

Before the turn of the century, liberalism as a phase in the social evolution of capitalism in Western Europe showed a tendency to progressive reforms. Such innovations as unemployment insurance, pensions, shorter working hours for women, the prohibition of child labor, workers' compensation, and many other advances were regarded as having become a part of the infrastructure of capitalism that would continually expand under the influence of liberal legislation.

The labor parties which grew up subsequently in Europe followed the same line: that the economic structure of the capitalist system created not just the possibility but the inevitability of an upward economic improvement in the status of the workers and the people generally; even foreign policy toward oppressed people abroad would eventually be moderated and colonialism ultimately abandoned. Liberalism seemed to be the wave of the future.

In America, that phase did not occur, certainly not at the same time. What did happen, however, was the great crash of October 1929, which destroyed many of the illusions of liberalism both at home and abroad.

Roosevelt period in U.S.

What followed in the United States was a great mass upsurge of workers and oppressed people that took on an almost insurrectionary character. The capitalist class, under the aegis of the Roosevelt administration, took on the mantle of liberalism, appearing to support the growing might of the workers and even making some civil rights promises, but only promises. The Roosevelt administration preempted the struggle of the workers and oppressed people here and created the aura of a new liberalism.

Roosevelt's program when he first ran in 1932 was not that different from Hoover's, that is, from a Reagan or Bush. But under the impact of the collapse of the banking system and the closing of factories and stores, a great many of the social innovations which had been legislated in Europe decades earlier were enacted into law under the Roosevelt administration.

Whereas the worldwide collapse of the capitalist system ushered in an era of liberalism in the United States, in Europe, the liberal phase having been exhausted, the bankers and industrialists (including some in the U.S.) supported the fascist movements as against the insurrectionary masses in France, Spain, Germany and Italy.

Looking at the development of capitalism in Europe, one can see that in its early stages, when the system was stable and growing, it was more amenable, under the pressure of the workers, to significant liberal reforms. These then appeared to be a permanent feature of the capitalist system. The collapse of capitalism in the Depression showed this to be an utterly false concept.

In the U.S., Roosevelt in 1937 turned against the militancy of the labor movement in the Little Steel strike, when he said ``A plague on both your houses.'' The Supreme Court, representing the more conservative wing of the capitalist class, then nullified the most significant aspects of Roosevelt's social program called the New Deal. It was then that the United States began to rebuild industry--not on the basis of the old structure of capitalism, but by converting the vast industrial-technological apparatus of the U.S. into a military fortress, a tendency which has grown ever since with few interruptions and no end in sight.

Liberalism and annexations

Now let's come to the Iraq-Kuwait struggle.

It is in the tradition of American liberalism, and to its credit, to defend a small country attacked by a big bully. It is particularly progressive for workers in an imperialist country to take the view that a big country shouldn't forcibly annex a small one. So when Kuwait was invaded, and the monolithic press here raised such a hue and cry, the liberals took up this cause like a duck takes to water.

However, they refused to see something that's obvious to hundreds of millions abroad. The same countries which for centuries have swallowed up smaller ones have suddenly become champions of the cause of Kuwait, to the extent of sending their armies and navies, declaring a crippling embargo, and taking every measure short of war! In fact, an actual invasion of Iraq may already have been decided; no one knows.

Why are they so convulsed about Kuwait? Is it really an expression of their moral outrage?

Of course, the annexation by Iraq of a tiny country like Kuwait should be carefully and critically examined in the light of the history of annexations, not only in the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and Africa, but also on the territory of the great capitalist powers themselves.

For instance, who were the greatest annexationists of all? The United States has annexed Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and Alaska. In none of these cases did the people have a chance to voice their desire for self-determination. Earlier, the United States itself was constituted through illegal annexations. Two-fifths of the territory of Mexico, comprising California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Texas, were annexed by the U.S. at the end of the Mexican War, without the consent or agreement of the people.

But is it not also a fact that this whole hemisphere was illegally, forcibly annexed by the European capitalist powers, principally Britain, Spain, France, Holland and Portugal? The Native people never agreed to it; the Europeans acquired this hemisphere through the deliberate policy of genocide.

In Europe, military conquest was often the vehicle for the overthrow of feudalism by early capitalism. The struggles to establish nation-states in Western Europe played a progressive role in this development.

In the Arab world, Nasser of Egypt tried to carry out the democratic revolution which Europe experienced in the 18th century. The attempts to unify the Arab countries by Nasser, or by Saddam Hussein or Colonel Qaddafi do not fundamentally differ from this. Nkrumah in his book Africa Must Unite proposed a similar road for Africa, but the lack of a people's army left him vulnerable to be overthrown by the British-controlled military.

Imperialism obstructs Arab social development

The whole Arab world has been constricted in its democratic evolution by imperialist obstruction. What is happening today in the Arabian peninsula is an attempt to unite the separate states and statelets established by imperialist interests, like the emirates and Kuwait itself. It is a problem for the Arab people in general to solve. The annexation of Kuwait by Iraq is an expression of the forces evolving in the Middle East for a solution of the type carried through more than a hundred years ago by the Europeans in the development of their own capitalist system.

Pan-Arabism as a means of uniting against imperialism could have its progressive side if it does not hinder the self-determination of peoples and if it does not forcibly try to retain within its fold nations which prefer self-determination as against other forms of political collaboration.

While for the working class a socialist federation of states is preferable to a bourgeois federation, nevertheless a bourgeois federation of states that resists imperialism must be defended against the imperialists.

The most obvious and pernicious obstruction to any development is imperialist rule. No country can freely choose between the different forms of self-determination (federation, autonomy, unification, independence, etc.) when it endures economic and financial control by the imperialists, as in Kuwait, whose enormous financial assets numbering in the hundreds of billions of dollars are either directly or indirectly owned and controlled by foreign imperialist banks.

The right of self-determination, the right of each country to take its own course of development unhindered by imperialism, is the top priority. In no way does this mean disregarding the existence of the class struggle on the Arabian peninsula, nor should it in any way hinder or absolve revolutionaries from pursuing a class struggle policy in respect to the bourgeoisie and more particularly to the compradore bourgeoisie, which is in alliance with the imperialists and serves their interests.

Kuwait's history

Kuwait was for centuries considered part of Iraq until the British in 1899 assumed control of its foreign affairs. After the first World War, Britain established a "protectorate" over Kuwait. The boundary line was drawn by Sir Percy Cox in 1922 at the Uqair conference. A decade later, fabulous oil resources were discovered there, and the low cost of production made Kuwaiti oil especially tempting to the imperialist oil companies.

The motivation of the imperialists in taking over Kuwait was not just the conquest of territory, as in earlier empires like those of the Ottomans or Mongols. Theirs is based upon finance capital's need to redivide the resources of the world, especially its raw materials, the most important being oil.

Iraq's claim to Kuwait didn't bother the imperialists much as long as Iraq was within the imperialist orbit and controlled by a monarchy that followed the dictates of the Iraq Petroleum Co., owned by the imperialists.

But in 1958 a revolution swept Iraq that was, in the words of the Chinese press at the time, like a "social atomic bomb." It broke up CENTO, the imperialist military alliance in the region.

The revolutionary regime which took over under General Kassim was overthrown in 1963 after a period of instability instigated by imperialism and the domestic compradore bourgeois elements. There followed a bloodbath of the most progressive elements, including thousands of communists, similar to what happened in Indonesia in 1965 and in China in the 1920s at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek.

A British account of what happened in Iraq in 1963 is given in the 1964 Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year, which says that there was ``a complete transformation of Kuwait's relations with Iraq based on Iraqi recognition of Kuwait's independence. The improvement began immediately after the overthrow of Abdul Karim Kassim.... The new government made it clear at once that it was not going to press Kassim's claim to Kuwait and friendly exchanges between the two countries took place throughout the summer. Early in October, an agreement was signed whereby Iraq recognized the independence of Kuwait. On May 14, Kuwait became a member of the UN."

But the struggle continued, and later Iraqi governments repudiated this concession to imperialism.

Condemn Iraq and U.S. equally?

In the October 20 demonstration against the war, it is necessary to have as broad a coalition as possible of all the diverse trends opposing U.S. intervention in the Middle East. Some are for withdrawing U.S. troops unconditionally. But a great many are for condemning Iraq for its annexation of Kuwait, and they are saying, ``Two wrongs don't make a right. It is necessary to be consistent. If we attack the U.S., we should also attack Saddam Hussein.''

In a general way, this is the position of the liberals, the pacifist elements in the anti-war struggle. They want to apply the same standards to the U.S. and Iraq. That may sound logical and appealing; what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Such arguments, which seem the very soul of simplicity and logic, have broad appeal.

It's a good reason, but it's not the real reason for the attacks on Iraq.

What, then, is the cause of the struggle? Why all the sound and fury?

Marxists differ from liberals in that they have a materialist interpretation of the struggle over Kuwait. Marxism goes beyond the superficial in order to analyze the real driving forces behind what may appear to be a just and moral position. All classes may be able to agree on assertions of what is good, what is just, what is moral and so on. But behind these generalities lie class interests.

All social and in particular political development is determined not by what idea this or that group holds but what its position is in class society. While this doesn't always hold true for individual cases, you can pretty well guess that John Paul Getty, the oil billionaire, thinks the Iraqi invasion is immoral, unjust and unfair. And it is safe to say that the Hunts, the Rockefellers, the Harrimans, and other billionaire families, especially those intimately connected with oil, the military-industrial complex and the big banks, share this view.

Liberal solution to social ills

Marxists differ from liberals in another fundamental respect. Liberals believe that a fair distribution of the growing national income in the country would solve the problems of racism, homelessness and poverty, among other issues. They abhor the widening chasm between the rich and the poor. As famous labor leader John L. Lewis used to say, we have to cut off some of the peaks and fill in the valleys.

Liberals and for that matter the majority of the people think that if the government narrowed this yawning gap between the very rich and the poor, there would be a great improvement in society. If for instance the Bush administration used its tax powers in the current pressing budget problems, it could narrow the gap.

The problem with all this is that taxation has been around for more than 150 years, yet the impoverishment of the masses grows along with the continuing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. The problem does not lie merely in the method of distribution of the national income. It lies elsewhere, and the liberal economists, following the lead of the most conservative economists, try to hide this.

The source of the inequality lies in which class owns the means of production.

A small group of millionaires and billionaires owns more than 90% of the wealth--the stocks, bonds, factories, real estate, natural resources, oil and gas, etc.

The process of pauperization at one pole and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few at the other pole is a tendency inherent in all capitalist societies. It does not give way in times of depression or prosperity. Some capitalists may fall by the wayside, some may go to jail or commit suicide, but the capitalist class remains the owners.

Today, for instance, there seems to be a violent argument between Congress and the president on the budget. Bush didn't completely get his way because something funny happened as the legislators were on their way to Congress from Andrews Air Force Base. It wasn't just the revelation that the plan favors the rich; it was that a capitalist recession is underway. And this makes the capitalist Congress fearful.

Nevertheless, the budget will be passed, and the tendency of the concentration of ever-larger fortunes in the hands of the few will continue as the pauperization of the masses goes on.

The liberal establishment and the current of thought they represent aims at mitigating the effects of the capitalist ownership of the means of production. They try to limit it here and there. They try to break up some monopolies, like the American Telephone & Telegraph company. But the cost to the consumer nevertheless rises in a multiplicity of ways. And nobody but the corporate lawyers really know who owns what corporation, what family dynasty controls this or that part of the tremendous multinational corporations.

There's an ever-continuing tendency to amalgamate, dissolve and sell outright giant businesses, close plants, and shift capital from one country to another. But the end result is the same. The billionaire element extends its power throughout the face of the globe amid the growing misery of the masses.

It follows as night follows day that the policy of the working class and oppressed people in this country first and foremost has to be to relentlessly and thoroughly expose the true role of U.S. foreign policy, which is an instrument of imperialist rule. The U.S. can in no way play a progressive role in any other country, unless and until capitalist rule is abolished here at home.

Bringing freedom on the bayonets of the U.S. military is a fraud. It strengthens finance capital and weakens the progressive forces everywhere.

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