The war in Ukraine – ‘Truth will Out!’

Source: ‘The Irish Times’

Those socialists in Britain who might regularly read ‘The Guardian’ newspaper, and despair at the wretched propagandistic coverage of the war in Ukraine, should count themselves lucky that that they don’t live in Ireland and avail of the coverage of ‘The Irish Times’.  

Unable to contribute to the cause of western imperialism directly, the Irish State has cloaked its contribution in mawkish tones of hypocritical concern, loudly proclaiming that it too supports the war while condemning its inevitable results.  Like all western support, from right to left, it considers support for war has nothing to do with its consequences because “Russia started it.’

‘The Irish Times’ faithfully reflects the hypocritical self-righteousness of the Irish State and political establishment.  The Russian war is routinely damned and its purported atrocities highlighted but its true horrors, which might include graphic pictures of the dead and dying, are hidden. Even more unsettling, photographs and video of those killed by Ukrainians will not be front page or headline news.  War coverage in the West is so routinely censored that its presence is unnoticed.

So imagine my surprise when today’s newspaper includes a column by the historian Geoffrey Roberts, who sets out the dangers of western escalation and its purpose. No doubt the rest of the week will see numerous letters of condemnation.

He notes that the West’s previous red lines on the supply of weapons have been crossed while significant political figures dismiss the possibility of Russian escalation in response.  He notes that such escalation ‘would be shocking to those western decision-makers who have become accustomed to the idea that only they can act with impunity when it comes to escalating the Ukraine war.’

Escalation includes main battle tanks and missiles with relatively long-range potential.  It also includes direct NATO personnel intervention through intelligence, training and targeting.  The provision of main battle tanks will involve significant maintenance support, and possibly NATO tank operators if they are to provide anywhere near their potential impact.

Previously, some left supporters of the Ukrainian state have made a distinction between defensive and offensive weapons and opposed ‘direct military intervention.’  Main battle tanks are clearly offensive weapons provided to Ukraine so it can carry out offensive operations, while missiles already supplied have the potential to hit Crimea, which previously was not simply a province of Ukraine but had autonomous status.  Today its population is clearly Russian and is considered by the Russian Federation to be part of its territory.  For those claiming justification for the war based on ‘self-determination’ this leaves something of a contradiction.

It is of course open to the supporters of Ukraine to support this state on the grounds that the war as a whole is purely a defensive one, but that does not avoid an existing problem and opens the door to another.

Those partisans of Ukraine who speak of supporting the Ukrainian people have the same problem as someone who recently posted on Facebook ‘victory to the Russian people in their struggle against NATO’.  Neither the Ukrainian nor Russian people are fighting this war, although it is they who are dying.  They are killing and being killed on behalf of the Ukrainian and Russian states, which are the real parties to the conflict.  In neither case is the working class independently organised and fighting in its own interest and for its own objectives.  

Either the respective supporters of the Ukrainian and Russian states believe that in this war one of these capitalist states is fighting for the interests of the working class or they can’t tell the difference between a capitalist state and its people, never mind its working class.  In neither case can the left supporters of either state be considered Marxist, which as a bare necessity requires the ability to distinguish between a capitalist state and a working class and, having done so, be able to identify and assert their separate and antagonistic interests.

If, on this occasion, they maintain that their interests are the same or aligned they face the question of how such an extraordinary convergence has occurred?  In the case of supporters of Ukraine – how did this alignment also include the whole of Western imperialism?  Why wouldn’t it happen again and how does this not invalidate Marxism, which teaches the irreconcilable antagonism between the working class and the capitalist state?  How often can the working class rely on the capitalist state to defend its interests? Do they know where this idea has led before and, if they do, can they not just do themselves and those of us who oppose this capitalist war a favour and take a short cut to openly repudiating Marxism?

The second, new problem opened up, is that if the character of the war is not to be defined by the infantile argument of who invaded who, then this must widen consideration of its nature to include the cause of the war, including the invasion; the objectives of the warring parties and the political character of these objectives and thus of the war itself.  In relation to this the article by Geoffrey Roberts is appropriate:

‘Never has the world witnessed such a proxy war as that being waged in Ukraine by the West, the overarching aim being to cripple Russia as a great power.’

‘In pursuit of this aim the US and other western governments have showered Ukraine with more than $100 billion worth of military, humanitarian and financial aid. Nato has scoured the globe for old Soviet ammunition and weapons systems that can be readily utilised by the Ukrainians. Western financial institutions have seized control of Russian foreign currency reserves and imposed sanctions designed to destabilise the rouble and collapse Russia’s economy. The West is also working to turn Russia into a pariah state internationally.’

‘Without western support Ukraine’s war effort would have collapsed months ago. The continuation of the war has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian casualties. Ukraine’s economy has been laid waste, while millions of its citizens have fled the country, and many more have been displaced internally.’

Roberts is correct that without Western imperialism there would no longer be a war – Ukraine would have negotiated a peace.  To therefore pretend that western intervention is secondary is to deny reality.

Roberts presents one potential of the continuation of the war:

‘As Putin creeps closer to some kind of military victory in Ukraine, the voice of those urging western restraint will be needed more than ever. The more territory Ukraine loses, the more casualties it incurs, the greater will be the West’s temptation to take yet another escalatory step towards all-out war with Russia.’

The Outcome of the War in Ukraine?

It is obviously hazardous to predict the outcome of the war given the conflicting claims of both sides and the obvious propaganda character of most of what is published.  The involvement of so many actors makes it difficult to have confidence.  What role will Belarus play, and will a ‘coalition of the willing’ e.g. Poland etc. be the subterfuge that NATO will adopt for a more direct intervention? How much escalation will NATO go for on the basis that they argue that they will not be intimidated, Russia hasn’t reacted so far, and the threats from Russia are outrageous intimidation?

What one thinks will be the outcome very much reflects what one thinks is already happening.

A strange consensus exists in the Western media.  Ukraine is winning but there are repeated entreaties for the Western powers to maintain their support, calls really directed to the populations consuming their media.  The ‘between-the-lines’ message is that Ukraine will not win if the West does not continue to support it.  That Ukraine can win, and claims that it is doing so, are meant to convince that the sacrifices already made have achieved results and not been wasted, although apparent setbacks also give rise to the same appeals.

What this means is that while Ukrainians are doing almost all the fighting, they cannot continue without Western support.  In other words, the war must continue, and can only continue, if the West remains in the fight.  Despite this repeatedly admitted dependence of Ukraine on the West, by both parties, their leftist supporters still claim to support their war based on the idea of ‘self-determination’.

In point of fact self-determination was achieved by Ukraine when it became an independent state in 1991, whereupon it suffered an economic collapse.  It attempted to carry out an independent foreign policy by balancing between Russia and the West but this too failed.  Its dependence now on the West is complete and all talk of self-determination and independence is so much deceitful humbug.  Win or lose Ukraine–as it has existed–is not going to determine its own future, or be in any genuine way independent of imperialism: ‘self-determination’ has also failed.

Ukraine started the war with 43 million people and 5 million military-aged men, but according to the U.N.,14.3 million have fled and a further 9 million are in Russian-occupied territory. Ukraine is therefore reduced to about 20 to 27 million people and at this ratio it has less than 3 million draftable men. A million have already been drafted, and many of the rest are either not physically fit or have a vital role in the economy. The GDP of this economy has declined by an estimated 30 per cent.

It started with an army of 250,000 regular troops, together with 450,000 mobilised citizen soldiers, with 1,800 artillery pieces that allowed firing rates of 6,000 to 7,000 rounds a day, plus perhaps over 2,500 tanks.  The weapons supplied by the West are needed not to add to these totals but to replace them because Ukraine does not itself have the necessary military-industrial complex to do it.  If Ukraine could not defeat the invasion with these initial forces the lesser supplies from the West are not going to achieve this task despite the escalation in the power of the new weapons.  Their purpose is to keep the war going, with all the horror this must necessarily entail.

Ukraine and the West have been able to present the idea that not only can it win the war, but actually is, through two arguments about how it has proceeded so far.  First is the failure of the Russians to take Kyiv and its retreat from the city, and secondly the reverses and retreats in Kharkiv and Kherson, reducing Russian control to approximately 50% of the territory it had captured by the invasion on 24 February.

The Russian objective has been a neutral Ukraine if an allied one could not be attained, while Ukraine as a member of NATO is unacceptable.The initial invasion seemed to be based on the view that Russia could point the gun to the head of Ukraine’s political leadership in Kyiv and gain the concessions that it required without a full-scale war.  When this leadership, with western intervention, rejected this course the only alternative was the grinding conflict that the war has become.  

Since Russia has had no intention of occupying all of Ukraine the purpose of the invasion is to enlarge the buffer between it and the NATO powers and to destroy the military capacity of the country – to ‘demilitarise’ and ‘de-nazify’.  A buffer, even an enlarged one through annexing Ukrainian territory, is not enough; Russia already started the invasion with a buffer but a continuing military threat in the remaining un-occupied state would be a very meagre victory.

This is why Russia invaded with only around 200,000 troops made up of regular Russian forces and soldiers from the two separatist areas of Donetsk and Luhansk; less than the Ukrainian armed forces when an overwhelming numerical superiority would have been required.

The primary goal of the military conflict has therefore become the destruction of the Ukrainian armed forces, and not the acquisition of territory, which can be taken after a military victory.  This includes those oblasts which Russia now claims as its territory but which it currently does not completely control.  The primary purpose of Ukraine has been the recapture of territory lost; together these explain the character of Russian reverses in Kharkiv and Kherson.

In the former few Russian forces were in place to defend earlier gains and most of those that existed belonged to separatist militias; Russia did not have enough soldiers to maintain its occupation of the area.  It was however able, in due course, to halt the Ukrainian offensive and then consider a counter-attack.  In Kherson the Russian forces were exposed and retreated before this exposure crystallised into a more pressing threat.  The result was that it was able to keep its forces intact and strengthen its immediate strategic position.  In both Kharkiv and Kherson the maintenance of its armed forces was more important than territorial loss.  To these must now be added the partial mobilisation of a further claimed 300,000 Russian soldiers, giving its forces numerical superiority for the first time.

Pro-Russian commentators have therefore argued that the static conflict that has been in place for the last three to four months has not been a stalemate but a result of Russian strategy to engage greater and greater numbers of Ukrainian forces with the purpose of then destroying them with greater firepower.  So, while we have noted that Ukraine could fire 6,000 to 7,000 artillery rounds a day, Russia has been firing 40,000 to 50,000, with some reports stating that it has a six-to-one advantage in artillery pieces.  It is therefore obvious that this sort of war is to Russia’s advantage; it is also true that it is not a war that Ukraine can win.  

Attempts to keep it going by Western arms do not benefit Ukraine but will only result in the death of more Ukrainians, not to mention Russians.  The number of weapons, including their diversity and the logistical problems arising from this, are inadequate and cannot in themselves rebuild an army that superior Russian forces already degraded when this army had larger weapons systems on which it had already been trained.

The political leadership of Ukraine, who walked their country into this war and promised victory, will find it difficult to admit defeat and so face the wrath of its far-right supporters and the displeasure of its US backers.  EU leaders may decide that sanctions have failed to impose the costs on Russia that they expected; that they themselves can’t afford, and that would not be justified by the project of incorporating Ukraine in NATO.  The rest of the world outside what calls itself ‘the international community’ has not rallied to the demands of the US, and China has not decided that doing the bidding of its declared enemy is better than maintaining its alliance with its new friend.

These point to an end to the war sooner rather than later, but not until Russia has degraded the Ukrainian armed forces and occupied those parts of Ukraine it now claims as its own sovereign territory.

This, of course, will not end the hatred and division between Ukrainian and Russian, including their working classes, and will not end the mutual antagonism between the two states.  The US and its NATO creation will have suffered a reverse but these have happened before; military setbacks will not destroy western imperialism, and the Russian and Chinese states certainly won’t.

A victory for Ukraine and the US would have similar reactionary consequences and would not usher in any progressive Russian regime.  We will leave to left-wing bourgeois moralists any notion that a victory for Ukraine would be a victory for the working class anywhere, least of all in Ukraine itself, which would then in such an eventuality have its future celebrations consist of the triumph of western imperialism and of Ukraine’s most reactionary nationalist traditions.

A war with potentially only reactionary outcomes and consequences is not one that can be supported.  Its lasting tragedy may be that any sort of democratic and progressive peace settlement is impossible.  Right now it certainly looks extremely unlikely, which is unsurprising. This could only arise from a working class armed with its own political alternative, and not some second-hand programme that has already failed and which is the most impossible outcome of all.  

‘Don’t hold your breath on UK rejoining EU’

The headline above is from the columnist Newton Emerson in the Belfast nationalist newspaper ‘The Irish News’.  He notes an opinion poll recording that two-thirds of Britons want a referendum on re-joining the EU and 54 per cent would vote yes.  He then explains why it isn’t going to happen, including that the majority would not be prepared for the long re-entry negotiations in which Britain might be humiliated – compelled to join the Euro, the Schengen Agreement and lose it opt-outs and rebate.

The Tory Party won’t and can’t do it as it would destroy itself and Starmer’s Labour won’t, although Emerson is wrong to say that Labour ‘can only stay in power by burying the question.’  While the venality, incompetence and unpopularity of the Tories may see it lose office, and Labour may even gain it, the Party will not stay in office with a policy that can’t be buried.  The majority of Labour voters and members will not stay with a Party that accepts Brexit with promises to ‘make it work’ while its damage continues to do its work. 

Emerson quotes a former Irish Ambassador to the EU that Brussels would accept re-entry on the previous favourable terms of membership but that it would need a guarantee that ‘the UK wouldn’t pull the same stunt again.’  Emerson argues that given British politics and public opinion such a guarantee couldn’t be given, although joining the Euro would be as close as one could get.

Emerson proposes that the ‘only realistic alternative’ is ‘inching closer towards the single market, one deal at a time.’  He acknowledges that ‘the Swiss model’ is not a model at all and that the EU ‘hates it’; so it can hardly want to repeat it with a much larger and recalcitrant ‘partner’.

The Economist’ has a leader and main article covering similar ground and with the same general view – ‘returning to the question of membership now would reanimate the toxic polarisation of the Brexit years.’  It too doesn’t seem to appreciate that this division is not going away, because the issue is not going away, because its effects are not going away.  It sets out some metrics of what these are.

The Bank of England has estimated that Brexit has depressed investment by 25 per cent over the five years to 2021, which can only exacerbate Britain’s poor productivity record.  The think-tank Centre for European Reform estimates that by the second quarter of 2022 GDP was 5.5 per cent smaller and investment down 11 per cent.  Aston Business School estimates that trade barriers have reduced exports to Europe from 70,000 product types to 42,000.  It quotes a survey from Tony Blair’s think-tank that 70 per cent of Britons want a closer relationship with the EU. But of course, it takes two to tango.

The Economist’ sets out in more detail its proposals to evolve such a relationship but is clearer on the obstacles than on the process to achieve it.  It quotes Peter Mandelson on “reconceptualisation” of the relationship, mentioning financial services.  It quotes ex-Tory Chancellor Philp Hammond suggesting a ‘grand bargain’ on migration policy to alleviate Britain’s skill shortages in return for deeper access to the services market in the EU, plus possible return to the EU customs union.  The newspaper speculates on a ‘Norway’ type deal or something between it and a ‘Canada’ deal.

Its own plan involves making a deal on the existing Northern Ireland Protocol; making the Trade and Cooperation Agreement work; expanding its scope in its scheduled review in 2026, and ‘reimagining the British-EU relationship afresh.’   It can’t help noting, however, that this might be ‘yet another form of magical thinking’ that has afflicted the British view of its relationship with the rest of Europe for many years.  Its proposition involves the EU ‘softening its aversion to the idea of Britain cherry-picking bits of the single market’, which it should apparently do because ‘the scenario it once feared, of Britain becoming a dynamic Singapore-on-the Thames, is remote’.  In other words, Brexit has failed so the EU must provide a better one!

Again, we are informed that access to certain markets determined by Britain ‘would be a boon for a bloc that aspires to be a regulatory superpower’; ignoring that the superpower would be much less if it allowed significant rivals to cherry-pick its regulations. Mandelson is quoted on financial services which Britain is concerned to maintain its advantage, while Hammond similarly wants access for British services–including of course financial–in return for help from the EU for the British skills shortage!

The prize for ‘have cake and eat it’ goes to the Labour Party’s Rachel Reeves, who reprises the spirit of the 2016 Leave campaign by claiming that “They’re desperate for a British government that wants to engage.  I do feel we’d be knocking at an open door if we went in with a different attitude to our future relationship.”  Apparently, the Labour Party hopes for ‘a bolt-on agreement on certifying industrial goods, so that a product approved for sale in one market is automatically certified in the other.’ In other words it wants Britain to be able to set rules for the EU single market!

The Economist’ states all this while also noting that the EU lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, was determined that Britain could not cherry-pick, especially over services, and could not re-enter the single market “through the windows”. It is also noted that ‘a hard Brexit suited everyone’, although Britain has found out the hard way that a hard Brexit doesn’t actually suit, while the EU sails on. Why would the EU now save Brexit Britain from itself?  ‘The Economist’ quotes a member of Barnier’s team – “Even if you normalise the relationship, that won’t obliterate the economic interests the EU has to defend.”  A former British official states that “They are going to look at the EU with puppy eyes, and the EU will take out a gun and shoot the puppy.”  So, a “different attitude” doesn’t look like it is going to cut it.

Most immediately, nothing will be achieved unless there is a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol and the proposed legislation that will allow the British to unilaterally repudiate the bits it doesn’t like is withdrawn or neutered.

The most recent speculation on a deal on the Protocol envisages light checks on goods entering the North from Britain, with the full rigours of the Protocol in effect not being applied.  This is a solution that almost all parties in the North would support.  They are like the Brexiteers that some of them condemn – a Brexit that ‘works’ as long as it doesn’t so that it really does deliver benefits with minimal cost.

Already the British have unilaterally extended grace periods.  But even if such a fudge was agreed, this is hardly the basis upon which new deals with the EU for the rest of the UK could be agreed.  The inevitable further development of the EU will see greater divergence between the EU and Britain with greater strains on any deal, never mind a fudged one.  The role of the EU Court of Justice is harder to fudge but it is inconceivable that any wider deals with Britain would include one

The Economist’ obviously believes that the war in Ukraine shows the necessity for unity in Europe against Russia and that the EU should accommodate such unity given Britain’s role; but the lessons of the war for the EU are not so clear.

In principle the EU and Russia (since it has become capitalist) can accommodate complimentary interests.  This does not mean that Russia could become a member–for the same reason that it cannot become a member of NATO.  It is too large, too militarily powerful, and with its own political interests and ambitions, including unwillingness to be subordinated to the United States.  The war in Ukraine has seen the EU become a casualty of the war, as the US demands sanctions that weaken the EU and strengthen the US.  There is little reason to believe this will not continue as the EU is a strong economic competitor to the US and therefore also a potential military one.  The EU has sought to avoid the latter but is being forced to confront what it means to be the former.

By contrast Britain has played an outrider role on behalf of the US in the war and has been a willing subordinate to the US for decades.  Inside the EU it would only strengthen those countries such as the Baltic states and Poland that prioritise opposition to Russia.  The core EU countries have no interest in having this split strengthened. 

The EU is an expression of the socialisation of production under capitalism which lays the basis for that socialisation to be completed through the social ownership and control by the producers – the working class.  The erosion of national divisions is a political reflection of this process and like the socialisation of production is progressive.

This doesn’t stop the EU from being capitalist, with the increased socialisation of production also raising the competition within capitalism to a new level that only socialism can overcome.

The Bad Ukrainian

The Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko has an article in the latest New Left Review, which apparently has created a bit of a stir.  Its audience is ‘Ukrainian scholars, intellectuals and artists’, who, he says ,‘face a dilemma.’  This dilemma is either to be ‘just another ‘voice’ in a very specific field of institutionalized identity politics in the West’, or ‘to articulate the questions of global relevance, search for their solutions, and contribute to universal human knowledge.’

What it really is, is a ‘J’accuse’ against his pro-Western peers who have stoutly defended the Ukrainian state in the war with Russia, more or less uncritically becoming a willing accomplice beside Western imperialism.  It is clearly directed to a small world so it is no surprise that it is seen by some as provocative.

The issue, however, is a decisive one in separating all leftists and Marxists into two broad camps, raising principled political differences that immediately entail taking a side in the war.  The obvious emotion aroused faithfully reflects the issues at stake; for both sides it is a question of betrayal.

The sociological jargon and the approach to the issue in terms of identity politics might seem to soften the polemic but you would have to be stupid to miss the point.  The dilemma is between identity politics that seeks recognition by western imperialism, so that Ukraine is viewed as really standing up for the freedom the West constantly claims – ‘Ukrainians are more Western than those who live in the West’; or, ‘to voice a universally relevant perspective on Ukraine, no matter how many Ukrainians would sympathize with it.’

The most stinging criticism is of some left Ukrainians, whose support for the project of ‘decolonisation’ of the country involves not much more than ‘abolishing anything related to Russian influence in culture, education and the public sphere.’  Since the support of the pro-war Left in the West for self-determination has no room for any class analysis and becomes purely endorsement of Ukrainian nationalism, this anti-Russian agenda has simply been endorsed.

Since self-determination without any qualification is upheld there can in principle be no opposition to the actions of the Ukrainian state in the war, including its ‘proceeding with privatizations, lowering taxes, scrapping protective labour legislation and favouring ‘transparent’ international corporations over ‘corrupt’ domestic firms. The plans for post-war reconstruction did read not like a programme for building a stronger sovereign state but like a pitch to foreign investors for a start-up.’

This is only the logical consequence of supporting self-determination for an already independent capitalist state, one that is not a colony or subjugated within a foreign empire.  The demand simply becomes one for it to be able to make its own political choices; the particular nature of the state regime or the policies it chooses are completely secondary.  In truth, this view of many on the Ukrainian left is more a result of material reality – of the strength of Ukrainian nationalism, the Ukrainian state and of Western imperialism.  The predominance of the demand for ‘self-determination’ also reflects the weakness of the working class movement in Ukraine and internationally.  It should be no surprise if social layers such as ‘scholars, intellectuals and artists’ reflect this.

So, states Ishchenko, ‘national liberation is no longer understood as intrinsically linked to social revolution, challenging the basis of capitalism and imperialism’ and ‘Ukraine’s ‘decolonization’ becomes a version of (national-)identity politics—that is, a politics centered around the affirmation of belonging to a particular essentialized group, with a projected shared experience.’

‘It is not surprising, therefore, that talk of Ukraine’s ‘decolonization’ is so much about symbols and identity, and so little about social transformation. If what is at stake is the defence of the Ukrainian state, what kind of state is it?’

And this is the central question for Ukrainian socialists who support the war and for their allies in the West.  How is it possible for socialists to support this state?  A capitalist state notoriously corrupt by European standards, which western ‘investors’ still remain extremely wary of entering post-war. A state that gave political and military support to US imperialism and NATO forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; in ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, and ‘Operation Freedom’s Sentinel’. Lots of ‘freedom’ it would seem. We are expected to believe that this same combination is now again defending our freedoms, this time in Europe.

How did the Ukrainian state become the bearer of such a noble mantle that it now inspires Western ‘Marxists’; and how did the US and NATO likewise transform itself – just by doing what it has always done – by confronting the evil Russian empire?

Ishchenko is scathing of this choice – ‘The Western elites are trying to save the fraying international order; the Russian elite is trying to revise it to get a better place in a new one. However, neither can clearly explain how exactly the rest of humanity wins from either outcome.’

The pro-war left can see no independent position for the working class in opposing both the Russian invasion and the Ukrainian state and Western imperialists. 

Instead, many pro-war voices in the West have exhorted us to listen to the voices of those Ukrainian leftists who have capitulated to their own state.  On this Ishchenko is particularly wounding:

‘ . . . there has been a huge surge of events, panels and sessions related to Ukraine, Russia and the war, and a high demand for ‘Ukrainian voices’ in these discussions. Certainly, Ukrainian scholars, artists and intellectuals should be included in international discussions—and not just about Ukraine. The problem, however, is not the quantity but the quality of such inclusion.’

He goes on:

‘We can already see the tokenism phenomenon, typical of contemporary identity politics, when a symbolic inclusion of ‘Ukrainian voices’ does not mean revising the structures of knowledge aligned with Western elite interests, beyond sharpening their guilt for appeasing Russia. Furthermore, the formalistic representation of tokenized ‘Ukrainian voices’ helps silence other ‘voices’ from Ukraine that are not so easy to instrumentalize. Are we really to believe that the English-speaking, West-connected intellectuals, typically working in Kiev or Lviv, and who often even personally know each other, represent the diversity of the 40-million-strong nation?’

‘The solution is obviously not to include even more ‘voices’ but to break with the fundamentally flawed logic of escalating national-identity politics.’

He concludes: ‘The narrow ‘decolonization’ agenda, reduced to anti-Russian and anti-communist identity politics, only makes it more difficult to voice a universally relevant perspective on Ukraine, no matter how many Ukrainians would sympathize with it.’

‘The Day the World went Mad’ – a review (3)

No death from coronavirus is acceptable’ said Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, while the idiot Health Minister for the North of Ireland stated that the health service could not turn away any Covid-19 patient.  When asked whether this meant that a cancer patient may die, he replied “Yes, that’s as black-and-white as it is.”

Mark Woolhouse describes the first remark, if taken literally, as making it ‘impossible to tackle the novel coronavirus epidemic in a rational manner’.   He goes on: ‘unfortunately, it was taken literally, and not only in Scotland, and that’s a large part of the reason why we ended up in lockdown.’

His argument is therefore that the lockdown policy wasn’t rational because it was impossible to find a balance between costs and benefits.  The Health Minister in the north of Ireland took it a step further and in effect claimed to throw all clinical judgement out the window by making Covid-19 patients a priority no matter what.

What sort of priority? Why a political priority of course!  One so obvious he did a U-turn, but only after the absurdity was too embarrassing.

While statistics were regularly produced on test numbers, infections, the R number and other covid metrics, the health cost of lockdown was ignored by invoking a simplistic health versus ‘the economy’ argument.  The need to protect the NHS, especially exposure of its inadequacies – due in part to Tory policy – covered up both the failure of the Covid policy and the performance of the NHS.  Woolhouse notes that during the first lockdown bed occupancy was 65 per cent between April and June while television news homed in on the small number of hospitals close to 100 per cent capacity.

Woolhouse reviews the harms of lockdown under the headings of health care provision, mental health, education, the economy and societal well-being.  He could have added the political effect of the government and state taking on dictatorial powers, frightening large sections of the population, and determining very basic activities that would never have been thought before to require some right in order to exercise.  These costs are nowhere near being evaluated and quantified even now and were all but ignored during lockdown.

Even the argument of prioritising health over ‘the economy’ had to ignore the health effects of austerity, including that an ‘additional 335,000 deaths were observed across Scotland, England & Wales between 2012 and 2019’, according to research at the University of Glasgow.  Marxists are often accused of wrongly exaggerating the importance of ‘the economy’ to social life but in this case some went further than anyone in claiming its inconsequence.

As we noted in the previous post, the first models assumed a disease with very different incidence from Covid-19, yet a later risk estimation algorithm analysed from the data of over six million people found that ‘the 5% of people predicted to be of greatest risk accounted for a staggering three-quarters of all deaths attributed to Covid-19’. It should therefore have been possible to target protection of the population in the same way the disease discriminated, and Woolhouse makes some suggestions how this could have been done, saving lives and money.

But politicians disagreed, and Michael Gove declared that ‘we are all at risk’ – ‘the virus does not discriminate’, while Health secretary Matt Hancock claimed one localised outbreak was ‘disproportionately’ affecting children.   They followed the views of certain experts who claimed, according to the BBC’s Newsnight programme, that ‘ a substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened . . . the perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased . . .’

The media themselves played their part by ‘regularly reporting rare tragedies involving low-risk individuals as if they were the norm.’  Then, of course, we had some on the left for whom all this was far, far too relaxed, if not a calculated conspiracy to weed out the unproductive members of the working class.

Woolhouse recounts his experience of the second lockdown, in which the failures of the first were largely repeated – ‘the case for a second lockdown in England remains weak to this day.’  On the issue of lockdown at Christmas at the end of 2020 he argued that ‘we could focus not on reducing the number of contacts but on making those contacts safe’, but states that ‘this idea did not gain hold in what became an increasingly hysterical debate.’

He observes that ‘as the second wave raged across mainland Europe, the zero Covid campaign faded away when even its most ardent supporters were forced to admit that zero was not a realistic target.’  Woolhouse, however, is obviously not familiar with all its advocates, for whom the last politically correct stance by the Chinese state has now been surrendered.  One recent article has claimed that China embraces ‘forever Covid’ when what is really happening is that Covid is embracing China as it was always going to do, with the only appropriate response being to prepare for it in the correct way.

The arrival of vaccines is presented by Woolhouse as the cavalry, and the fact that China has failed on this while pouring its energy into repressive lockdowns should be yet another lesson.  Many, however, will let the whole Covid-19-episode retreat into the distance that is known as the past and become ‘history’.

Woolhouse reviews the experience of several other countries, including Taiwan, New Zealand, and Sweden, which was prominently disparaged but which he defends.  He also addresses the experience in Africa, where he has interesting things to say but is less definitive.  He looks at alternatives but is critical of The Great Barrington Declaration, despite its emphasis on protecting the vulnerable, although it is not clear to me that his criticism is not compatible with a version of its general approach.  Of the UK’s science advisory team, he accepts that the following could have played a part in its failures: ‘group-think, unconscious bias, tunnel vision, hubris, discouragement of dissent and lack of diversity . . .’

Though disliking the term ‘lockdown sceptic’, which he thinks makes him sound like a ‘climate change denier’ or ‘flat earther’, he still declares ‘why I’m a lockdown sceptic.’  He describes what happened as ‘following the crowd even while it is stampeding in the wrong direction’ because changing course would mean admitting being wrong in the first place, although he notes that the case to do so was so compelling the World Health Organisation did so.

He lists the thigs he did not expect to happen in the pandemic, including many ignoring elementary principles of epidemiology or scientists abandoning their objectivity, and finally that the world would go mad.

‘But it did.’

concluded

Back to part 2

‘The Year the World went Mad’: a review (2)

In his book Mark Woolhouse provides the story of the Covid-19 pandemic in Britain and his role as an advisor to the British and Scottish Governments.

His restrained story does not cover all aspects of the pandemic and the Governments’ response, but it is nevertheless pretty damning.  He notes that that Scottish Government didn’t set up its own expert advisory committee and have its first meeting until three days after the first lockdown, ‘by which time the course of the epidemic in Scotland and the UK . . . was pretty much set’. He criticises the World Health Organisation (WHO) for only declaring a pandemic until well into March, so undermining early action in the UK, and by which time he deems it also ‘pretty much irrelevant.’ 

In fact, WHO comes in for other scathing criticism, including for its approval of China’s strict lockdown policy – “China’s bold approach . . . has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic’ it said at the end of February 2020, even as Covid-19 had already spread to forty-eight countries.  Nearly three years later China’s strict lockdown policy is falling apart and the call by the Director-General of WHO to follow its policy now looks foolish.

The UK had its own problems right from the start, including the assumption in its pre-existing planning that it was going to be fighting an influenza pandemic.  As Woolhouse puts it, the modelling group he sat on ‘had to contend with one challenge right away; it was set up to tackle the wrong disease.’

The difference this made can be seen in the models created to inform decisions on what action to take against the spread of the disease.  More appropriate for an influenza pandemic, the ‘new, bespoke coronavirus models’ included the impact of schools but not of care homes for the elderly.  Covid-19 was a disease massively disproportionately affecting the elderly, with the average age of death in the UK at 78 and 80 for deaths attributed to coronavirus, but having generally only mild effects on children.  The original influenza models also didn’t include lockdown.

Woolhouse says that ‘We’d done our homework, but we’d prepared for the wrong exam’.  He still claims that they ‘were useful tools’ but also that ‘I wouldn’t want decision-making to be over-reliant on models either’.  Unfortunately, he also says that ‘in March 2020 . . . you could easily get the impression that the UK government’s mantra of ‘following the science’ boiled down to following the models.  That’s how it looked and that’s how the media presented it.’

The models were used to produce an R number every week: the average number of cases generated by a single case. ‘The R monster turned out to be quite dangerous . . . The relentless focus on the R number detracted from the usual public health priorities of saving lives and preventing illness.’  This, for him, was part of a wider problem, accusing many scientists of ignoring elementary principles of epidemiology and abandoning objectivity and common sense.

One example, that was employed as an ignorant term of abuse also on the left, was the damning of ‘herd immunity’, and he criticises the editor of the leading medical journal ‘The Lancet’ for continuing ‘to rail against their straw man version of a herd immunity strategy.’

This criticism of the approach of many scientists is measured and unpolemical, and he presents it from an insider perspective in which models create scenarios and not predictions. He nevertheless finds a particular target in the Imperial College report number 9, which generated a worst-case scenario of half a million deaths in the UK by the end of July.  He admits to generating such a scenario himself.  ‘The problem was that these worst-case scenarios weren’t realistic and weren’t intended to be.’  This one however had the very real consequence of making lockdown ‘accepted as a necessity the first time it was proposed.’

The strategic objectives were presented as saving lives and protecting the NHS.  As Woolhouse notes, if this meant ‘trying to minimise deaths due to novel coronavirus while ignoring deaths from other causes, and if social distancing is the intervention of choice, then we don’t need a complex computer model to tell us what to do.’

Boris Johnson’s ‘flattening the curve’ to ‘protect the NHS’ had two problems according to him.  Firstly, flattening infections and hospitalisation reduced peak demand on NHS services but prolonged it, and the NHS couldn’t cope with either. The NHS therefore required more resources and, while it got new hospital facilities, these remained largely unused because it didn’t get the required staff.  Woolhouse claims the UK got what he predicted – ‘yo-yoing between intolerably severe restrictions and unsustainable pressure.’

In my own posts during the pandemic, I argued that protecting the NHS was attractive to politicians because it would also protect them from accountability for their prior policy of running the service down.  Ritual hand-clapping on the street became the substitute, while we are now invited to condemn NHS workers for striking to recover the fall in living standards incurred over the past number of years.  Perhaps these workers would be in a stronger position today if the failures of government had been exposed during the pandemic instead of demanding more of the same policy.

Woolhouse admits to supporting the introduction of the first lockdown despite concerns, because there was no other option on the table, he was unsure of the effect of earlier measures and he was not prepared to take the risk.  The central message of the book however is that lockdown was wrong and there was an alternative.  He argues that there were already marked shifts in people’s mobility before lockdown and that the latter ‘seems to have come late to the party and had surprisingly little effect.’  Imperial College published a counter-factual analysis ignoring this voluntary activity and exaggerating the effect of lockdown.  

Woolhouse notes some problems with its analysis.  Sweden never went into full lockdown but brought the epidemic under control. Imperial then claimed implausibly that its banning of mass gatherings had had the same effect. Other researchers came up with the quite different conclusion that the UK epidemic was already in decline before lockdown took effect.  He doubts that ‘anyone would claim now that the March 23rd lockdown saved anywhere near half a million lives.’

His alternative was to act earlier, but not to introduce the lockdown that was implemented, while lifting restrictions earlier.  ‘Lockdown was never going to solve the novel coronavirus problem, it just deferred it to another day, and it did so at a great cost.  Epidemiologists and modellers knew that it was going to be the case from the outset. It turned out policy-makers did not . . .’

‘Lockdown was conceived by the World Health Organisation and China as a means of eradicating novel coronavirus once and for all from the face of the earth. With hindsight, this plan was doomed from the outset . . . The world was given an intervention that only made sense in the context of eradication as the preferred means to control a disease that was clearly here to stay.’

Many on the left maintained this position – of zero-Covid – long after this was obvious, while the World Health Organisation eventually backed away from the policy.  In October 2020 it stated that ‘we really do appeal to all world leaders: stop using lockdown as your primary control method.’

As Woolhouse puts it – ‘tragically, this appeal came seven months too late and by that time a colossal amount of damage had already been done.’

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

‘The Year the World went Mad’: a review (1)

‘The Year the World went Mad; a scientific memoir’, Mark Woolhouse, Sandstone Press, 2022

The working class in Ireland and Britain face dramatic cost of living crises caused by inflation, and in the UK by austerity justified by claims that the public sector deficit has dramatically increased.  The BBC reports that ‘the cost of living is currently rising at its fastest rate in almost 40 years’ and that ‘the UK faces its biggest drop in living standards on record.’  This is ‘largely due to the war in Ukraine and the fallout of the pandemic’ says the BBC.

In Britain the sudden collapse of the pound following the Liz Truss/Kwasi Kwarteng budget was the result of large unfunded tax cuts that the international finance markets would not accept.  One reason they did not accept them was the previous massive expenditure arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.  In Britain and the North of Ireland the cost has been estimated as £376 billion, or 15 per cent of total Government debt and enough to fund over eight and a half years of a deficit that supposedly justifies the current austerity.

The war in Ukraine has resulted in sanctions by the West on Russia, which has in response limited energy supplies to the West.  Sanctions have also disrupted trade and increased many commodity costs, exacerbating the inflationary effect of state expenditure during Covid and the money printed through quantitative easing.  There was always going to be a price to be paid for the money spent as a result of the lockdown policy and sanctions on Russia and it is hardly a surprise that it is being imposed on working people.  What should be a surprise is that the Left should have opposed incurring these costs in the first place but didn’t.

In so far as the war in Ukraine goes, much of the Left has been an echo of Western Governments, which so far have been willing to incur the pain as long as it can be transferred on to rivals and/or dumped on workers.  The voices of the pro-war Left tend to mute when it comes to accepting responsibility for supporting the sanctions policy and consequent assault on working class living standards.

As far as the policy of lockdown during Covid is concerned, the problem would be massively worse had much Left advice to extend and deepen lockdown been accepted.  This book by a member of the British and Scottish Governments’ Covid-19 advisory bodies is a Professor of Epidemiology and a critic of both of their pandemic policies.  He is critical of the lockdown policy of both, of its health, social and economic costs, and insists there was a better way.

If his credentials are supposed to inspire confidence it should of course be remembered that there were many other scientists and medical experts who would disagree with his analysis and conclusions.  Appeals to authority are not going to take you very far.  It is necessary, as always, to think for yourself. His book is worth reviewing because he was an insider in the Governments’ responses and therefore in an advantageous position to recount their decisions and why they were made.  He can also provide background to the pandemic and the response to it but essentially his analysis backs up what was very largely known during lockdown and which led this blog and others to reject the consensus that lockdown was the only correct response.

As to why so much of the Left supported lockdown, this in itself is no pointer to a correct policy; we long ago left the terrain of seeking comfort in majority opinion on this end of the political spectrum.  Stalinism, social democracy and ultra-left sectarians have been making up the majority of it for a long time and even the last grouping almost invariably seeks maximum action by the state as the answer to immediate political and social problems, washed down with a heavy dose of scatological political prognoses based on the supposed radicalisation of the working class through a seemingly permanent capitalist catastrophe.

If capitalism is in permanent crisis then it would seem obviously impossible that the greatest political, social and health disasters are anything other than the immanent outcomes of capitalist economics and the calculated strategies of the representatives of the capitalist class.  This resulted in some on the left demanding even greater lockdowns because the existing ones were either a sham or simply inadequate.  This involved highlighting the potentially worst possible outcomes, repeating the greatest scares and calling for the most drastic actions.

Their recommended policy ignored the level of repression required to enforce their preferred extreme version of lockdown, and ignored the real costs of existing lockdowns and the very impossibility of achieving more restrictive enforcement. It ignored the stupidity of closing down production of goods and services while calling on the state to fund the incomes of workers who produce them so that they could buy the goods and services that they were being paid not to produce.  Anything else was denounced as sacrificing lives for profit, as if under capitalism the goods and services required to produce and reproduce life could be created any other way.

From this perspective the advantage of this book is that it is not in the least concerned with much of the disputation on the left, but may be read as a critique of their proposed approach from which they might at least ask–did we get it wrong?

Forward to part 2

The war in Ukraine – support Russia?

A debate has been taking place on the nature of the war in Ukraine on the post put up immediately after it started.  Those familiar with this blog will be aware of the various arguments against those who would support the Ukrainian capitalist state and its western imperialist backers against the Russian invasion.

The supporters of Ukraine variously claim that it is a colony or simply a victim of invasion by a predatory imperialist power.  They demand that the working class stand with the Ukrainian capitalist state and excuse its alliance with western imperialism.  They are usually too embarrassed to argue direct support for US and NATO although they could claim that they are providing no political support to western imperialism but simply some acceptance of military commitment that can be distinguished from it.  This of course is nonsense.

The argument has been joined by the mirror opposite of this and it is claimed that because Russia is not an imperialist power in a ‘Marxist’ sense, and it faces an undoubted imperialist alliance that is imperialist in this sense, socialists must support Russia.

A number of questions are raised, including is the so-called ‘Marxist’ definition of imperialism employed correct and if it is, does Russia actually fall within it?

I am not going to address these questions which I have in other places argued are secondary.  I have contended that the support of one capitalist power against another in this war is a betrayal of the interests of the working class and of socialist principles.  It involves workers sacrificing themselves for either western imperialist interests or for Russian capitalism and it is nonsense to claim that because Russian capitalism is less advanced than western imperialism it should be supported!

It has been claimed that Russia is in some way analogous to Ethiopia in 1935 when Trotsky opposed the Italian imperialist invasion of that country and supported Ethiopia. However, Russia is not some underdeveloped country with a feudal monarchical regime being invaded by western imperialism in an attempt to colonise it; this argument will no more fly than the argument that Ukraine is a Russian colony, so there is no great point in attempting to shoot it down.   

The argument to support Russia is supported by appeals to Lenin and Trotsky but as it has been pointed out, they didn’t support Russia in the First World War.  At that time Russia was not an imperialist power by this ‘Marxist’ definition (in so far as it has been explained) and it faced in Germany an exemplar of finance-capital imperialism.  It is perhaps implied that they opposed Russia in the war because of its broader alliance with capitalist imperialist powers but Lenin repeatedly emphasised that Russian ‘imperialism’ was in respects worse than the others!

Far from supporting the argument that we should support the ‘non-imperialist’ capitalist states, they did the opposite and opposed both the imperialist and non-imperialist capitalist states (that is non-imperialist in the sense that it is employed to support Russia today).

The general approach of supporting less developed capitalisms against more developed forms is not only wrong politically but totally un-Marxist.  For Marx, socialism arises on the advances and development of capitalism and not from its backward forms.  It is what makes socialism possible.  The many posts on this blog on Marx’s alternative to capitalism explain this in detail.  It is the very definition of reactionary to believe that the road to socialism comes through defence and support for the most undeveloped and backward forms of capitalism.  Having stood Hegel on his head some want to turn Marx upside-down.

This relates to another problem reflected in both the appeal to Lenin and to the belief that opposition to imperialism today means support for non-imperialist capitalist states, just as previous socialists defended the right of nations to self-determination in the colonies and where nations were annexed to empires.

It was queried whether ‘anything qualitative has changed in the last hundred years to justify changing that approach’ to supporting non-imperialist states fighting imperialist ones.  I argued in return that:

‘When Lenin wrote on imperialism he said that capitalism had become characterised by monopolies and just as national economies were so dominated, so the world was divided up by imperialistic countries who turned each colony into their own property. The world was therefore divided into imperialist countries and colonies, between oppressor and oppressed nations.’

‘However, in the past one hundred years the Austro-Hungarian empire has disappeared, along with the Ottoman empire and by and large the European empires of Britain, France and Belgium etc. Almost all their colonies are politically independent capitalist states so the policy of self-determination does not apply, just as it is inapplicable to Ukraine today. It too is already an independent capitalist state and now with the backing of western imperialism.’

‘Many of these former colonies or dependencies are major capitalist powers in their own right including, for example, two of the biggest countries in the world – India and China. Capitalism has developed in leaps and bounds in many of these countries and with it the development of significant working classes. The role of socialists in these countries is not, as it was before, to seek to overthrow foreign imperialist rule so as to weaken the imperialist countries and thus advance the cause of socialism within them, but rather to advance the struggle of their own working classes to overthrow their own capitalism in unity with other previous colonies and the workers of the old imperialist countries.’

It was then queried whether the fact that ‘the colonies have achieved formal national independence?’ meant ‘subsequently that the political approach outlined in Permanent Revolution is also now invalid?’

Well, it must be obvious that if political independence has been achieved, and many of these former colonies have developed capitalisms with significant working classes, the scope of permanent revolution has in some respects changed.  For a start the bourgeois democratic tasks of the revolution – national independence, removal of feudal restrictions and classes – that were so prominent in permanent revolution are no longer so prominent.  To claim that they are, that in such developed capitalist societies the immediate tasks of the working class involve national independence etc. in some sort of joint struggle with native bourgeois forces would turn permanent revolution into its opposite and Trotskyism into Stalinism.

The argument to support Russia invites us to consider the big picture of what defeat for it would mean, presumably so that workers must rally to support it and prevent such defeat:

‘I think you might want to consider what is at stake for Russia in this conflict and what a victory for US/NATO imperialism in this conflict would mean for them. At the very least it is regime change in the Kremlin to install a compliant pro-imperialist puppet if not the actual dismembering of Russia into 3 or 4 smaller compliant states to better allow direct imperialist plunder of its resources.’

The same argument has been presented in favour of Ukraine and I have argued that it is not the job of socialists to come to the aid of capitalist powers just because they are losing.  Defeat undoubtedly inflicts misery and suffering and encouragement for the victor, but these are grounds to oppose the war, not to take sides in it.

Were the scenario above to transpire this would involve the dismemberment of the Russian state.  Russian military doctrine affirms that it could use nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack or an aggression involving conventional weapons that “threatens the very existence of the state”, which dismemberment would constitute.

The issue would then not simply be the subjugation of Russia but the immediate threat of nuclear war and the end of human civilisation as we know it.  I do not know at what point, if any, it would not become an issue of supporting the Russian capitalist state but ending the war through the activity of the working class.

Support for Russia is also argued for what might be seen as ‘positive’ reasons but personally I find this the most repulsive of all the arguments.

In arguing that Russia today is in some way comparable to Ethiopia in the 1930s the supporter of the Russian state inserts into the writings of Trotsky at that time the names of today’s combatants:

“If US/NATO and their Ukraine puppet triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of Putin, however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Western imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this.”

We are asked to believe that the victory of Vladimir Putin would act as a beacon for the oppressed people of the world and be a blow against imperialism as a whole!  Does the writer really believe that Putin will inspire the workers of Europe and Americas to overthrow their oppression?  That is overthrow capitalism?  Will he inspire Russian and Ukrainian workers to overthrow their oppression?  Does he believe that millions of other workers and oppressed in Asia and Africa do not just see Western imperialism as murderous and hypocritical but also see Russia as their leader in a fight against their oppression?  And what if many did?  Would that be a cause for celebration, something to earnestly seek and support?

For Marxists, the emancipation of the working class will be achieved by the working class itself and not on the coat-tails of kleptocratic capitalist leaders.

The arguments in favour of supporting Russia in the war in Ukraine involve claiming Lenin and Trotsky would support the opposite of what they actually did; involves turning Marx upside-down; ignoring the effects of one hundred years of capitalist development, and the elevation of Vladimir Putin to the inspirer of the world’s oppressed. As one group of so-called socialists trail behind Zelensky and NATO another follows Putin and Russia.

People before Profit challenges the President of the EU in Dáil Éireann, not.

As we have noted in a number of posts, including this one and a series beginning here, some socialists have argued that the war in Ukraine is both an imperialist proxy war and a war of national defence by Ukraine.

If it is the former, then socialists can support neither side and if it is the latter we are obliged to support Ukraine.  It can’t therefore be both.  As has been argued in these posts and others, there are not two wars going on; there are only two sides and the one involving the Ukrainian state involves an alliance with Western imperialism.

There is little doubt that the pretence of opposing the war while also supporting it through defending Ukraine is unsustainable.  It arises from inability to stand against the tide of the massive propaganda campaign waged in Western states by its mass media and the capitalist-controlled press and television.

The ability to sustain this balancing act against this strong head-wind is partially dependent in how sheltered a particular left organisation is from the attention of this media and their exposure to ‘public opinion’, which is pro-Ukrainian because of it.  Rolling with the punches however is painful and unprincipled; you can’t directly fight back on the central issue because you can’t establish an independent working class position consistently opposed to the supporters of the war.

People before Profit (PbP) in Ireland have been successful in getting representation in the Irish parliament but this leaves them exposed to the mass media and the ‘public opinion’ that it is able to manufacture.  Its politics are already weak, focussed as it is on parliament and maintaining their presence in it.  It is therefore no real surprise that when the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, spoke to Dáil Éireann on 1 Dec 2022, its nonsense position fell over, and equally unsurprising on which side it fell.

The response to von der Leyen’s speech by Richard Boyd Barrett started by thanking her and ‘Europe’s commitment to ensuring that there will be no hard Border on the island of Ireland or that the exit of Britain from the EU should not in any way adversely impact on the peace on this island.’  You wouldn’t think that PbP had itself supported Brexit, so giving rise to this concern in the first place. But that is a another story.

He went on to note the housing crisis in the Irish State, stating that – ‘while much of the responsibility lies with successive Governments failing to address it, a large component of the responsibility also lies with the decisions taken by the European Commission and the ECB, as part of the troika, to ram billions worth of austerity down the throats of the people of this country.   It is long past time that the EU acknowledged its mistakes in imposing that austerity and devastating consequences it has had.’

Asking for the political representatives of capitalism to say sorry for their policies is useful for what purpose exactly?  What meaningful difference to anyone was Tony Blair’s apology for Britain’s role in the Irish famine? Was this to acknowledge the baleful role of British rule in Ireland or to present it in a good light as it imposed another ‘solution’.  What use was David Cameron’s apology for the British Army murder of fourteen civil rights demonstrators in Derry in 1972, except to absolve the political leadership and pass the blame onto the grunts on the ground?  What use are requests for apologies for past sins when you support their current ones?

Boyd Barrett went on – ‘I also note that this week the President has called – I support her in this – for a tribunal to be established to investigate the undoubted war crimes of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. We all condemn the utterly barbaric and murderous invasion of Ukraine by Russia. We support the people of Ukraine in their struggle for self-determination.’

Of course, he noted some hypocrisy here – ‘I must say, however, in the week when there is the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, for the President to not call simultaneously for an investigation into the ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity being committed by the apartheid state of Israel against Palestinian people makes me wonder about the consistency of the ethics of the EU’s foreign policy.’

He also criticised EU policy on Saudi Arabian and the ‘EU-Moroccan trade agreement, which involves essentially taking the fish and mineral resources of the occupied Western Sahara people.’

Summing up, he said that ‘If we are to condemn, as we must, the war crimes of Putin, we must simultaneously condemn all war crimes and all crimes against humanity, even when they are committed by people that the European Union perceives as allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia or those that arm and support them.’

But what has Boyd Barrett got to say about the war crimes of the Ukrainian state?  Does he not know about the continuing attacks on civilians in Donetsk City that have been going on since 2014?  Has he not seen the videos of captured Russian soldiers being shot in the head by Ukrainian armed forces?   If he wants to condemn the human rights abuses in the war in Ukraine, why does he ignore those carried out by the Ukrainian state?  Or is he too hypocritical in his selective condemnation, ignoring the crimes of the capitalist state he supports?

He finishes by declaring – ‘President, we must have consistency in our foreign policy, in our ethics and in our morality if we are to be taken seriously as defenders of human rights and opponents of war.’

He wants Western capitalist states ‘to be taken seriously as defenders of human rights and opponents of war’?  How is that going to happen?  Since when did it become possible for capitalist states to be consistent defenders of human rights and opponents of war? How can he even conceive that this is possible when every state in the EU is in the midst of supporting the biggest war in Europe since 1945!  Hasn’t Boyd Barrett noticed this support?  Or is it too like his own, as he too parades himself as against the war?

Maybe he should stop wondering about the ethics and morality of capitalism and its state machinery and try to recall some of the Marxism he claims to stand for; like Lenin suggesting that the only thing that will end war is socialism.  Maybe then he might become aware that it is not the inconsistency of capitalist states that is the problem; they are really pretty consistent in their foreign policy and support for war. He might also reflect on his support for Western imperialism adjudicating on the crimes of others, and its Ukrainian allies, when perhaps this is something only the working class can do! Just a thought he might want to consider.

This miserable speech is testament to what happens when socialists abandon principled positions and indulge in capitulation to their own rulers, leading them to the frankly idiotic nonsense that pleads for consistent progressive policies from their own capitalist states in the middle of them supporting a reactionary war.

New Left Review and the war in Ukraine (3)

The New Left Review editorial describes five aspects of the war as ‘different types of conflict—civil, defensive- revanchist, national-resistance, imperial-primacy, Sino-American.’

‘The fourth type of conflict, then, is the one being waged by the Biden Administration. A former CIA chief describes it as a proxy war . . . Leon Panetta, ‘It’s a proxy war with Russia, whether we say so or not’, (Bloomberg tv, 17 March 2022) . . . Yet the goal of Biden’s sanctions was not just to put an economic chokehold on the invasion of Ukraine; their aims, the Economist explained, are more sweeping— ‘to impair Russia’s productive capacity and technological sophistication’ and deter China.’

‘The character of the Biden Administration’s conflict with Russia is unambiguously ‘imperialist’, in the sense that it aims at regime change and the assertion of American hegemony over the Eurasian continent . . . In another sense, the Ukraine war is a massive distraction from the Democrats’ real priority: domestic revival to ensure American primacy in the strategic rivalry with China, where the US also hopes to see another type of regime installed in due course.’

This is where ‘the spectre of a fifth type of conflict intervenes, over-determining Washington’s reactions to Ukraine: the coming battle with Beijing.’

This analysis of the war as involving five, perhaps six conflicts; possibly seven if the ‘big gain in soldering Europe to Washington’ is included, is inspired by Ernest Mandel’s analysis of the various conflicts in the Second World War.  His analysis, however, involves separation of the war into distinct wars identified by their political character.  At its most simple, the New Left Review editorial identifies only three: a civil war within Ukraine, a war of national defence by the Ukrainian state and an imperialist war.

The conflict long ago (in 2014) left the terrain of a civil war and the war of ‘national-resistance’, which, in the language of NLR, might be described as ‘overdetermined’ by the US struggle to significantly cripple Russia–itself ‘overdetermined’ by the struggle against China–is therefore subordinated to the objective of ‘American hegemony over the Eurasian continent.’  This necessarily also entails subordination of Europe to US hegemony, achieved mainly through sanctions but spectacularly demonstrated by the almost certain US-determined sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines.

New Left Review argues that its five wars create an escalatory dynamic.  This has included the scuppering of peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia in March and April by the United States, acting through Boris Johnson, of all people.  This has been denied by supporters of Ukraine for whom the purity of its cause rivals that of the immaculate conception, made all the more luminous set against the evil of Russia.

Despite its turbulent and conflicted history and its renowned corruption, its cause is unblemished either by its internal politics or all this external realpolitik context.  To defend such a position an alien power can only be responsible for the tragedy on whose door all blame can be laid.  These defenders of the Ukrainian state thereby claim that ‘Russian diplomacy was always a smokescreen’ and nothing it says can be taken at face value.

Their argument is derived from the assertion “that the logic of Russia’s behaviour regarding Ukraine and the ‘collective West’ more broadly is driven by territorial expansion and the opportunistic use of violence.”  From this vantage point nothing Russia has done, or can do outside of capitulation, can be trusted and all actions can only be interpreted with this intent. An argument is thereby offered, which doesn’t prove that Russia has been insincere, but simply commits to no proof being necessary.

So, ‘Russia’s insistence on implementing the Minsk II Accords in Donbas’ was not ‘proof of [a] preference for diplomacy, and accepting it is only to make the mistake of taking ‘the Kremlin’s statements at face value.’

While it is claimed that support by Russia for the Minsk agreements was false, it is also claimed that ‘they weren’t a magic recipe for peace, but a tool of Russian military-diplomatic pressure whose meaning and use changed over time.‘

‘While in 2014-2017 the implementation of the Minsk Accords could have led to a negotiated reintegration of Donbas into Ukraine under international supervision, the international situation and Russia’s intentions have changed.’

Nowhere is it acknowledged that Ukraine had repeatedly rejected these agreements in practice and continued to treat the separate regions as the consequence of simple terrorism, hence its anti-terrorist operation to recapture them.

It is claimed that ‘the Ukrainian leadership pursued a ceasefire in Donbas from the summer of 2020’ while ‘the Kremlin used it as a bargaining chip to put pressure on Zelensky’s government and to create a flimsy pretext for an invasion.’  In fact the ceasefire was temporary and both separatist and Ukrainian forces carried out attacks, which increased just before the invasion.

The apologists for the Ukrainian state continue: ‘Zelensky’s last-ditch attempts to return to the negotiations in late 2021 were rejected by Putin, who tore up the Minsk Accords by recognising the independence of the breakaway regions.’  This claim may be a reference to the purported offer reported by Reuters, here and here for example, but which Russia has denied.

The authors state that before the invasion ‘the US and Europe made efforts to take Russia’s security preoccupations seriously, agreeing to make concessions in the areas of arms control and limitations on military exercises. Additionally, Joe Biden promised Putin that no missiles would be placed in Ukraine . . .’

Given the pre-history of NATO expansion; withdrawal from existing arms control treaties; the commitment of Ukraine to NATO membership; the endorsement of Ukrainian security policy by the US; increased participation of Ukraine in NATO exercises; a history of lying about NATO interventions in Eastern Europe and also, for example, in Libya; it is not credible to claim that at this late stage these US statements demonstrate that the war was avoidable through western good intentions.

The US claimed to know that the invasion would take place and made preparations for it; it cost nothing and was completely cynical to promise diplomatic talks involving concessions.  On the Russian part, it was equally cynical then to demand NATO concessions it knew would not be delivered and to deny that an invasion was planned.  Both were simply setting out positions just before war; nothing unusual in this.

Socialists need to cut through the lies of bourgeois diplomacy, not embroider it with nonsense that NATO ‘didn’t have a mechanism’ to agree steps that would prevent the invasion, or didn’t have time to do it.  This war was a long time in the making; that it was preceded by a propaganda war is how every such war commences.

The crux of the argument is over the collapse of the deal negotiated in April in Istanbul, of which these defenders of the Ukrainian state say: ‘we might never know what would have happened had it not [collapsed].’  In their long description of the context of the negotiations there is no rebuttal of the particular point they set themsleves to refute: that Johnson made Ukraine know of western opposition to the deal and it was thereby taken no further by it.

That Russia later conducted the war is also offered as proof of the argument that it was determined to have it in the first place; something of a non sequitur.  Like the Zelensky regime itself, these Ukrainian leftists conclude that they didn’t want this peace deal anyway – ‘It isn’t just any peace Ukrainians want.’  We are thus given to simply accept that no deal was possible because you can’t trust Russia: ‘Russia’s approach to the March negotiations likely wasn’t genuine.’

Since the war started the regime in Ukraine has taken part in negotiations, then walked away at the threat of a withdrawal of NATO support; has claimed it will not negotiate and then promised to pass a law enforcing this decision; then made a number of statements claiming it would negotiate on terms that it knows Russia will not accept.

The upshot of all this is the argument of the Ukrainian state that the war cannot end except through victory but that the cause of its continuation is not its fault in any way.  This position can only be embraced by socialists if they also embrace the Ukrainian state and its allies, which is why abstract principles are applied to the first and the second ignored.

The more and more obvious leverage that the US and NATO have over Ukraine makes it obvious that they will have a big say over the end to the war and cannot be ignored.

The most publicised element of support from western imperialism has been its provision of arms, which undoubtedly have played a significant role.  How significant is a matter to be determined.  Supporters of Ukraine, and Ukrainians themselves, have been keen to assert their own agency in this war, although not so keen to assert it in its creation.  It is Ukrainians who are fighting and dying, albeit with the support of Western military personnel to an undisclosed degree.  The quality as well as the quantity of military support has been denigrated by observers, but the greater demands of the Ukrainian state cannot be satisfied without certainty of serious escalation.

More important than this has been the financial support without which the Ukrainian state would be collapsing to an even greater extent than it is; its economic contraction is currently estimated as a reduction in GDP of around a third this year.  This points to the importance of the political support without which the Ukrainian state could not but accept it had no possibility of winning the war.  Without the potential for a political home within western imperialism there would be no alternative but agreement with Russia.  It is not enough to claim the right to self-defence in some physical sense when politically there is no viable project within which it could be effected, the alternative political resolution is therefore an agreement with the enemy.

Western imperialism, which currently means the United States, will determine how long the Ukrainian state continues to fight and for what objectives.  Ukrainians are therefore prisoners of the US, which means their leftist supporters are no less tied to it.  Ironic for a group constantly parroting the demand for self-determination.

New Left Review ends its editorial by noting that theoretically Europe could have balanced against the US but that ‘after fifty years of sapped sovereignty, European states lack the material and imaginative resources for a counter-hegemonic project.’  It concludes that ‘In the 2020s, the Europeans are wide awake, smiling and cheering, exulting in their ‘strategic autonomy’ as they are frog- marched towards the next global conflict for US primacy.’

The concern with the power of European countries to stand against the US is touching for a journal that is so committed to Brexit and opposition to the EU.  Does it really believe that a continent of independently organised states would have the material resources and thus the ‘sovereignty’ to counter US hegemony?  Does it believe that Brexit has allowed Britain to play a more independent role against the US?

*             *               *

In the meantime, the Ukrainian state doesn’t cease to be capitalist and recognises that the war will end at some point.  It therefore continues to implement its reactionary policies while its people fight for its defence.  So New Left Review describes how Zelensky has pushed forward removal of labour protections from up to 70 per cent of the existing work-force.  The unity of Ukraine celebrated by the Ukrainian left and its supporters in the west, and the former’s call for social peace, results in a one-sided suspension of the class struggle.  

As ever, prosecution of national war entails subordination of its working class, an example of what Marx meant when he said in the Communist Manifesto that ‘the working men have no country’, better rendered as the working class has no fatherland.  It should be recalled that during the Second World War British workers went on strike (in almost 9,000 stoppages between September 1939 and  April 1945), but I’m pretty sure many would no doubt be aghast at such a suggestion today.  Just like the Daily Mail, which has described them as  revealing a ‘disgusting lack of patriotism’, such suggestions would be regarded as the parroting of ‘Russian talking points’ by ‘Putin stooges.’

The New Left Review editorial describes five aspects of the war but says nothing about any independent role for the working class.  This is not a question of recognising that at present it plays no independent part but of identifying the role that it should play and the political basis on which this should rest.

Obviously, those supporting the self-determination of the Ukrainian state leave no role for it except cheering on the vehicle of its newly-adopted cause, while studiously avoiding any uneasiness at it also being the vehicle for the designs of western imperialism.  Similarly, those favouring a victory for Russia, as a defeat for the main enemy, have left no role for the working class since this is a job that can only be achieved by the Russian state.  I’m not sure these people will ever get around to removing such duties from the other enemies of the working class and in the meantime I assume they would oppose Russian workers taking action to stop the war being conducted by their state.

For socialists in the West, the task is to oppose the war, to seek its end and to oppose the interventions of its own states.  This means opposing the supply of weapons and the sanctions from which they are suffering, through campaigns and any direct action that workers can collectively organise.

The role of socialist analysis is to expose the wretched treachery of those who would proclaim that the Ukrainian capitalist state, supported by Western imperialism, is engaged in some progressive struggle that the working class should not only support but for which it should make extraordinary sacrifices.

The main enemy is at home. It is always at home and hasn’t suddenly become our vicarious ally.

Concluded

Back to part 2