War Without Law (History)

War Without Law

This is the text of Brendan Clifford ‘s address to a Bevin Society Public Meeting held on 7th February, 1991.

Rather than talk about law in general, I will try to say something about the inability of the British Left, for historical reasons, to cope with matters involving law. I think that that inability, combined with other things, has resulted in what must be the all-time low in the social influence of the British Left this past year. I know a fair amount about British history and British working-class history, and I do not think there has ever been a time in which the views of the Left, or the radicals, or – call it what you will – that segment of society that is supposed to be discontented with the existing state of affairs, and to be doing something to reorganise the existing state of affairs – has been of such little consequence in society. Not even at the height of the Napoleonic Wars was the radical movement of so little consequence as it is today. Not least among the reasons for this fact that a war is being fought in the Gulf in the name of ‘international law’, and most of the radical movement has got nothing to say about it

The unfortunate history of the British Left in this respect is that it emerged from the Nonconformist movement and looked backwards to the 1640s and 1650s for its inspiration. It was therefore millenarian, in a religious sense, for a good many generations. When I came to London in the 1950s, you still had a lot of Puritan millenarianism in the socialist movement. In that period it began to be superseded. The religious impulse began to break up, and at that point you had a new form of millenarianism supplanting it, the Marxist economic determination of history.

Law had something to do with the Puritan inheritance. Around 1650, with the rise of the Commonwealth and the Cromwellians, there was a lot of talk about law. John Lilburn and the Levellers were very hot on the subject of law. But law meant something to them which is quite different from what law means, historically, in the real world. It was, in their view, a means of organising harmony in society under the influence of God, and they were absolutely convinced that the millennium was about to begin in 1650. They believed in establishing a body of theocratic law that would be coterminous with order. Law and order would be identical because God was working behind the scenes organising a general harmony in society.

Three hundred years later you had basically similar Marxist ideas taking over when the religious ideology was breaking up in the Labour movement. Economic determinism would bring about a sort of pre-ordered harmony, and that law would be the form which this harmony would take.

Now, historically, law is based on conflict, and it has to do with conflict. But in general the Left has never resigned itself to living in a society in which conflict is inherent – law being a means not of overcoming conflict, but of giving expression to conflict – and enabling conflict to develop, rather than suppressing conflict.

Because the Left never resigned itself to a world which functioned through a conflict of interests, and in which there was no foreseeable end to the conflict of interests, it has never been able to devise the most effective ways of furthering the working class interest. It has assumed that all other interests would become redundant through the rise of a single, harmonious working class interest, whereas in reality the working class itself had become a sphere with a diversity of interests. The Left as a whole never accepted the actual structure of the world, and therefore it has been increasingly at odds with the real development of the world. And now it has lost all influence whatsoever.

Twenty years ago, there was a lot of talk about the Left exercising hegemony. And an awful lot of intellectual effort went into the analysis of hegemony. Hegemony, as I understand it, means that some body in society exercises an influence beyond its own boundaries. It is capable of exerting some sort of general social influence. But, in the course of analysing ‘hegemony’, the actual hegemony exerted by the socialist movement kept on contracting. And now it is nil. Now, in fact, the Left does not even hegemonize itself, so to speak. You have Clare Short, Joan Ruddock and all of these people raising their hands for a war policy that is even more extravagant than the Government’s war policy, and they simply do not know what they are doing because the world has got beyond their comprehension. They have an utterly inadequate philosophical conception of the world. They do not have either of the millenarian conceptions any more, in any active sense: neither the religious one, nor the Marxist one, and they have got nothing whatsoever in its place. They have got absolutely empty heads, and all they can think of doing in order to have a chance of winning the next Election is to outrun the Government in the warmongering.

They have never accepted that the world operates through conflict, therefore they can never be effective within the conflict that makes up not only national society, but international society. And if they cannot cope with domestic law – as they cannot – they certainly cannot cope with what calls itself ‘international law’. They either reject law as a complete and total fraud, or else they have to swallow what is presented to them as law, holus bolus. But they have no critical faculties capable of operating once the word ‘law’ is pronounced to them.

That is one source of their complete impotence at the moment. The other has to do with the ending of the cold war, and the ‘peace dividend’. The ‘peace dividend’ is one of the great delusions of the Left. It is the supposition that production can be transferred from war materials to other materials, more socially useful. If you look into the history of society you find that states which are pitiful in their efforts to produce consumer goods can get themselves sufficiently to produce war material. A sort of concentration can be applied to the production of war goods that cannot be applied to the production of peace goods. I have been saying for years that, if the Cold War ended, and the armaments race ended, there was no reason whatsoever to assume that the standard of living would therefore increase. All that would probably happen would be that the concentration on war production would cease. And it could even be that the rest of the economy would slacken off. There would certainly be no automatic transference of production from armaments to normal peacetime commodities.

A year and a half ago, when the Cold War ended, there was an expectation of some kind of general harmony prevailing in the world, and of armaments production transferring to other forms of production, and having better hospitals, etc. This was a groundless assumption. Once the conflict of the Cold War ended, it was likely that some other sort of conflict would move into the centre of the state. And the best producers of consumer goods would not be the economies suffering from a cut-back in arms production.

The Labour Party and the socialist Left on the fringes of the Labour Party did not anticipate anything like this, and they did not appreciate that the ending of the Cold War was bound to have a disorienting effect on international affairs. The Cold War ended in the most peculiar way. I do not think any conflict in history has ever ended the way the Cold War ended. You had the whole world divided into two major military blocs, with a lot of intermediary forces, which were able to tack to and fro, and which had some freedom and some influence because they had some bargaining power with the major blocs. But one of the blocs simply opted out of the struggle. There was not a war. Nothing decisive happened. Nothing occurred to reduce the power of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union just threw itself into chaos. The Cold War ended without any conflict, without any development. And the other side suddenly found itself in the position of being in control of the world. If the Soviet bloc opts out of the conflict, all that can happen is that the other bloc sees itself as being in command of the world. It followed logically. But it could not happen that the other blocs could actually take over the government of the world. The world is a long way from being sufficiently subservient or orderly for America to actually govern it, but it had to be that the American President assumed that he was suddenly the effective government of the entire world, and he had to try to make his rule operative, if no other view of things was put forcefully to him.

Now, the Labour Party should have been thinking about all of this in these past two years. And it would have been thinking about it, and preparing for a new form of conflict in the world, instead of dreaming about the emergence of a preordained harmony, if it had had a more realistic conception of what made the world tick. But it was just drifting along, as far as one could see, without the leading group in the Labour Party having given a moment’s thought to what was happening, and it was utterly unprepared for what suddenly erupted.

Last August they were told that a war was to be fought in the Gulf in order to maintain the system of ‘international law’. They had never given a moment’s thought to whether there existed a system of international law or not. If they had given it any realistic thought, even in terms of British political philosophy, they would have known perfectly well that a system of international law did not exist. They would have known that the last thing that is going to exist in the real world is an effective system of international law.

There are problems in developing a system of international law immensely greater than the very great problems that existed in Britain, and still exist in most of the world, about developing effective systems of domestic law. Systems of domestic law developed backwards, in a sense, in that they began with authority. And authority, being concerned to have more systematic administration of power, drew up rules for its administration. And these rules gradually became systems of laws administered by judges. Very few people had access to these laws in England until the nineteenth century. Law was for the gentry. But, with the process of democratisation, law becomes accessible to most people, or parts of the law become accessible to most people. Eventually – within the present century – law becomes generally accessible. Everybody has access to law after a fashion. A person has rights that, if he puts his mind to it, he can get enforced on the basis of law if somebody tramples on them.

That is invariably the way domestic law develops. It is never developed according to the theory of the social contract, i.e., people do not get together and agree to set up a state in which everybody will have equal rights. The social contract is the end product of this development and not the beginning.

But, in the case of international law, it can only develop according to the theory of the social contract, i.e., the states must agree amongst themselves to have a system of law that will guarantee something to all of them, and that none of them are exempt from. The other way, that of having a system of world order first, and then it developing into a system of law, that cannot happen in the real world, no matter how great the power of the United States becomes. It cannot establish a sufficiently secure system of world order for that system to begin to develop into a system of law. It is always going to be a very brittle system that has to rest on sheer authority. the world is not going to become a sufficiently subservient place for a system of international law to be deduced from a system of international authority. But the only object of the United Nations is to establish a system of international authority, through a collaboration between the United States, Britain and Russia, with France added, and China added, after a fashion. And, even if the three of them could agree on a system of world order, which, in the nature of things they cannot, the world is still much too diverse a place for even a tripartite system of order to develop into a system of law. It will remain nothing but a system of order, lacking consent and provoking resistance.

The League of Nations was an open-ended institution within which a system of international law could have developed. It could not have developed in the twenty years that was allowed, but the states who were members of the League of Nations were more or less equal, even though there were some permanent members on what was the equivalent of the Security Council. Those permanent members did not have a veto and new permanent members were added as new states grew stronger. But there is no possibility of evolution built into the structure of the United Nations. In fact, the structure of the United Nations is designed to prevent an evolution towards anything like a system of international law, because the veto is far too powerful a thing for any state having it to think of giving up, or to think of admitting any other states to the same privilege. It just is not a possible framework of development. That is not to say that the United Nations is an entirely useless thing. It is only to say that it is not a possible framework for the development of a system of law.

Since this war is being fought in the name of international law, if the Labour Party had any real idea of what a system of international law involved, it could have developed a critical attitude towards what the United States and the Government here, and the United Nations, so-called, has been doing since last August, without pushing themselves on to an untenable limb, such as the Militant group or the Socialist Workers’ Party occupy. The Left, insofar as it has said anything, has only said it in the form of the Socialist Workers’ Party, the International Socialism Group, and that is not a position that can influence the general opinion of Britain. But it is, in effect, the only alternative to rowing in uncritically behind the Government at the beck and the nod of Kinnock and Kaufmann. And it is because the Labour Party has itself given no realistic thought at all to the way that the world is composed that the real alternatives before leading members of the Labour Party are to support the Government mindlessly, or to jump out on a limb with the International Socialism group. That, I assume, is why people like Joan Ruddock and Clare Short can do nothing else but support the Government, once the slogan of international law is shouted at them.

All I have tried to do here is to describe how it came about that, at this particular juncture, that would in certain respects seem to be full of opportunity for the Left, it is bankrupt in a way that it has never been in two or three hundred years of left-wing politics in Britain.


This article appeared in March 1991, in Issue 22 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.