MANY distinguished Communists have addressed this annual commemoration of the life and work of Karl Marx. Rereading some of these speeches I was struck not only by the many profound points made but also by their rather diplomatic character.

This may be Marxist, but it is not a bit Marx-like. The revolutionary buried here was endlessly disputatious, often truculent and utterly intolerant of any attempt to confound or compound the doctrines to which others gave his name.

From Marx we can perhaps learn that diplomacy may be an over-rated virtue.

Complacency and an avoidance of uncomfortable controversy proved problematic when our movement led one-third of the world’s people in building socialism. It is disastrous when, as today, the Communist movement is weak and fragmented, still searching for a way forward in an era of counter-revolution and imperialist war.

So, I shall endeavour to be controversial. I cannot assert that anything I say necessarily represents what Marx would say if he were alive today but I will try to look at the question in his polemical spirit.

In being asked to address the question of Marx and imperialist war, we face a double difficulty. Marx himself ceased his lifelong labours before modern imperialism and its wars really secured their death-grip on the world.

He did, of course, address the plunder of India and Ireland by the British empire, but here his works need to be carefully weighed and scrupulously analysed.

For example, one of his jost famous passages in relation to India acknowledged the brutality of British rule over the sub-continent, yet, at the same time, exalted its progressive work in uprooting Asiatic backwardness and implanting in its place the dynamism of European capitalism.

I would like to think that he would not have put the question in exactly the same way later on, when the economic and social destructiveness of imperialism was more fully revealed as a systemic block to the development of the peoples of Asia.

From Marx we can perhaps learn that diplomacy may be an over-rated virtue.

He might also have reflected that human progress is not unilinear, with all countries required to advance to "civilisation," emanating from Europe alone, by the same route. Lenin and the Communist International, reflecting on later developments in world capitalism, made the necessary corrections.

But if Marx did not always hit the mark with every detailed observation, from a perspective of 150 years on, the essence of his thinking is as much a guide as ever in the present imperialist war.

We should not doubt the scope of the challenge the world faces — the determined attempt of the world’s only superpower to impose its own interests on the whole of humanity in what even the Pentagon has recently admitted will be a "long war."

It is no exaggeration to call this a world war in more than embryo. At present, Iraq, Afghanistan and much of the former Yugoslavia are under direct occupation.

Military bases are springing up across the face of the Earth in readiness for new conflicts. Countries presently threatened include Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Syria and North Korea.

We can learn from Marx himself and from the work of many Marxists over the 20th century that the essence of this drive to domination and war can be found in the logic of capitalist accumulation, in the drive to exploit ever greater numbers of working people, in the demand for ever more surplus value and the maximum possible profit.

It is this logic which starts by intensifying exploitation everywhere — for example, in the fact that the average worker in the US itself presently works 40 per cent longer hours than 25 years ago, with little or no improvement in real wages over the same period — and ends with wars of conquest to control resources, open markets, privatise assets and remove those who will not comply.

What is the role of Communists then? It is outlined, above all, in the words of The Communist Manifesto. "They point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire working class, independent of all nationality" and "always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole."

Further, Communists bring to the fore the class question — the question of production relations — at every stage. This is more than ever necessary when the development of the imperialist drive for domination in the post-cold war world throws up a host of new issues, where different classes are drawn into conflict in new forms, when religious and national forms often overlay the essential issues and where no class worldwide presents a single face politically.

This has been true to some degree of all great wars, but it is particularly acute when, as today, the working class wields only a small influence at the level of state power and where the ideological positions of imperialism often go unchallenged in mass political discourse.

Taking the internationalist view is not necessarily simple. Do we believe that the occupation of Iraq — the jost central issue in the world struggle today — is entirely illegitimate and should be ended immediately? Or do we believe that it has been legitimised by the United Nations and should be ended at some point in the future, when the political situation in Iraq appears more favourable?

In practice, behind purely verbal camouflage, Communist parties have different positions on this. They cannot be reconciled. One or other meets the international interests of the working class. This debate needs to be had without being bashful.

Communists working in the spirit of Marx cannot accept the idea that the working class does not have a single ideological standard. But no one party or guru can lay down that standard unilaterally.

The struggle for it has to be the joint endeavour of all Communists. But to accept eclecticism ideologically is not only to go against the spirit of scientific socialism. It also weakens the united front needed against the imperialist war.

The single ideological standard — the idea that, in taking an international stand, the vanguard of the working class had to be animated by the same principles everywhere — was the ideal that Marx fought for in his time against Lassalle, Proudhon and Bakunin and that Lenin fought for against Kautsky.

How Marx scorned the idea of unity for its own sake on an ideologically soggy basis. Marx’s whole life was an insistence on socialism as a science, as a knowledge-based system of understanding the development of human society and the struggle for its emancipation. A struggle for a single ideological standard was perhaps his obsession – it did not make him easy company, but it did make him great.

How that fighting unity of Communists is restored is critical in the fight against imperialist war, with all the complications it presents.

Take the novelty that George Bush has now proclaimed his open-ended war as a "campaign for democracy." Let us pass over for a minute the obvious hypocrisy of US support for dictatorships and its contempt for the democratic choice of the Latin American peoples in one country after another.

We must say that a "war for democracy" is an oxymoron under imperialism. Imperialism is in its essence un-democracy. It can provide the routine of managed elections and the veneer of public expression, but in its very marrow it is the rapacious seizure of the wealth of nations, the denial to peoples of any control over their own destinies, it is national humiliation, racism and barely veiled coercion everywhere.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in Iraq, where the pictures of torture and bestial abuse in Abu Grahib and elsewhere are the authentic pornography of neocolonialism, where a city like Fallujah, the size of Coventry, can be razed with barely a murmur and where the US ambassador and the British Foreign Secretary now dictate to the Iraqis what manner of government that they must form.

Yet there is a revisionist position which poses the demand for democracy — the legitimate aspiration of all peoples everywhere — against the struggle for freedom from imperialism. Never in our history have the two been so interdependent. We must restore to democracy its class essence — democracy for whom? — and say that those who expect imperialism to deliver democracy in Iraq or elsewhere will meet disappointment or worse.

Another question that has come up sharply in the present imperialist war is a variation on the familiar problem of imperialist economism, against which Lenin fought so sharply in the first great imperialist war.

‘Imperialist war is breeding terrorism and it, in turn, is the pretext for authoritarianism’

In its contemporary form, it poses social demands against the national and anti-imperialist struggle. It reduces the campaign against imperialism to demanding trade union rights and urges the satisfaction of economic problems without posing the fundamental task of national democratic emancipation.

Such arguments are familiar from the struggle against British imperialism in Ireland, where they have been marginalised, and they are increasingly seen to be bankrupt in relation to Iraq as well.

What is the essence of the situation in Iraq? It was well put by the Iraqi Communist Party, which said: "The Anglo-American imperialists who occupied our country and robbed us of our independence with the collaboration of a handful of national traitors, today works more frenziedly than ever to turn our country into a war base." That statement was, alas, issued in 1954 rather than more recently, but it retains its full force today.

Finally, there is the ever-dangerous embryo of chauvinism, never more than dormant in the British working-class movement, against which both Marx and Engels wrote so copiously.

This finds its expression jost recently in confusion in the face of the imperialist race-baiting of Muslims in Europe. It is a simple trick — keep poking devout Muslims with a stick until a small minority respond in an extreme and absurd way and then turn on the whole community like a pack of hounds saying: "Look, these people are alien to our civilisation."

It is chauvinism when we neglect to observe that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims come from countries which have, without exception, been colonies or semi-colonies well within living memory, whose peoples have been oppressed and their countries raped, not because they were Muslim but because they stood in the way of imperialist super-profit.

Their presence in large numbers in European countries is likewise a consequence of the imperialist world system.

Secularism is an important principle. So, needless to say, is free trade unionism. So is equality for women and for gays and lesbians. But we can still have a secular chauvinism or a trade union chauvinism if these principles are not fought for in the context of an understanding of the dialectics of imperialism and, in particular, of the pervasiveness of racism against Muslim people in Britain today.

We all know that Marx described religion as "the opium of the people." Let us also recall that he preceded that famous phrase by writing that "religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions," an analysis which serves well in considering the social circumstances imposed on many Muslims in Europe today.

It is equally wrong to allow the sometimes religious form of the struggle for national liberation in particular countries to distract from the core of the question.

Let’s remember that the Mahdi — the "mad Mahdi" of contemporary chauvinist propaganda — who led the uprising in the Sudan against the hero of empire General Gordon was a theocrat.

Yet William Morris, one of Marx’s first followers in England and a man who always insisted on describing himself as a communist, observed that, when the Mahdi took Khartoum and killed Gordon, the important thing was that "Sudan is once again in Sudanese hands." That is the point of significance — in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

These are points of supreme importance in the work for the realisation of the perspective of Karl Marx today and will determine in large measure our own perspectives for advance in Britain.

Marx wrote in 1861 that "in no part of Europe are the mass of the people more utterly ignorant of the foreign policy of their country than in England." He could not write that today.

Issues of foreign policy excite people as seldom before. The great anti-war movement has put Bush and Blair’s world policies at the heart of aljost every issue of public debate.

Foreign and domestic politics march as one. Imperialist war is breeding terrorism as never before and terrorism, in turn, is the pretext for authoritarianism and for a sustained assault on liberty.

If successful, that assault will have as its main consequence making it easier for those bent on hegemonising the world to launch further wars if they feel the need. And these are the circumstances in which we must fight for the victory of the working-class socialism which Marx outlined as the inevitable realisation of humanity’s destiny.

Actually, these circumstances are not so bad. It was Lenin who, in a prescient passage in Left-Wing Communism, observed that "it is possible that (in Britain) the breach will be forced, the ‘ice broken’, by a parliamentary crisis or by a crisis arising out of the colonial and imperialist contradictions."

That colonial and imperialist crisis is all around us today, despite the superficial calm and triviality of contemporary British bourgeois politics, with all parties contriving to dance on the head of the same pin in the so-called "centre ground."

As the imperialist war unfolds, so we can be sure will the mass movement against it, which will be manifest on a global scale once more next weekend.

It is a struggle for peace, a struggle for national independence, a struggle for the priorities of social justice rather than capital accumulation and, ultimately, a struggle for the core ideal of Marx — the restoration of humanity to its essence, a restoration which today can only lie through the defeat of a world system which mutilates humanity spiritually and, often, physically.

The defeat of imperialist war is the supreme task of Marxists and Communists, united as one across the world, today.

* Andrew Murray is chairman of the Stop the War Coalition.