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 New Left Revieweditorial 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?
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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 Revieweditorial 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.
New Left Reviewstates that ‘Putin’s war, the second type of conflict at stake, has an ambiguous double character, defined by its twin adversaries, NATO and Ukraine. On the one hand, Russia’s mobilization began as a desperate defensive gamble against the advance of US military power. On the other, the invasion is a neo-imperialist war of conquest or partition, wavering in scope, provoked by Kiev’s declared option for incorporation into the West.’ The editorial states that ‘the two aspects of the war are distinct in their origins, aims and ideologies.’
This argument, however, sustains only one real difference, which is the ideological cover given by Putin for the Russian invasion; in all other respects the two aspects are one. As I argued on Facebook to a member of the Fourth International (FI) who condemned Putin’s imperialist justifications regarding the validity of Ukrainian claims to nationhood – Marxists should not take ideological justification for explanation.
There are not two wars going on in Ukraine, only one. That Ukraine is still fighting is due to Western support. Its justification is for self-determination and its left supporters have rallied to this flag in wilful ignorance of its meaning for socialists. The self-determination demanded by Ukraine entails the right to join NATO, which obviously threatens the self-determination of Russia, not to mention those in Crimea and other areas of the Ukrainian state that no longer wish to be ruled from Kyiv. Wilful ignorance exists for them too.
The result of a Ukrainian victory would be the subordination of minorities in a Ukrainian state. In the October issue of The Atlantic magazine the very pro-Ukrainian US journalist who visited the country notes that there is ‘a burning hatred of all things Russian, whether Putin or Pushkin, and open contempt for the Russian people, who are widely regarded as Putin’s slaves.’ What price the rights of those who see themselves as Russian in a victorious Ukraine?
A victory would see Ukraine join NATO as a subordinate member of that imperialist alliance. Militarily subordinated, already dependent on western arms, the Ukrainian state will have to sign up to new IMF or other lender conditions for help, for which the Ukrainian working class will pay. And this is what is termed self-determination! There would not be two victories in this war because there are not two wars going on, only one.
Nevertheless, New Left Review (NLR) states that ‘Russia’s invasion generated a third type of conflict: Ukraine’s war of national self-defence’. This is the argument that the war has two political characters that I have repeatedly rejected here and the series of posts starting here.
The argument presented is that:
‘The trauma of the invasion has inevitably forged a new national consciousness in Ukraine . . . Pride in Ukraine rose from 34 per cent in August 2021 to 75 per cent a year later. This has come at the price of a visceral hatred for Russians—‘the orcs’—whose terms Zelensky shares: ‘Until they get smashed in the face, they won’t understand anything’, he told the Wall Street Journal.’
‘In August 2022, 81 per cent of Ukrainians reported they felt ‘cold’ or ‘very cold’ towards Russian people, and nearly half regarded the populations of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in the same hostile light. The proportion of people who think Ukrainian should be the only state language has risen from 47 to 86 per cent.’
The article notes one result – ‘Given the mixed genealogies and trans-border extended families in the region, this translates into innumerable strained or broken relationships; a third of Ukrainians define their predominant feeling as grief.’
A more pointed summary is expressed in The Atlantic magazine: ‘Ukraine’s present unity is unprecedented, but war – always intolerant of complexity and ambivalence – is pushing Ukrainians to construct an identity that is simpler than the country’s history. The war will not resolve the abiding question of what it means to be Ukrainian.’
The purported war of national defence is intensifying an already reactionary nationalism that no amount of left apologetics can render progressive. The Atlantic magazine author is correct that this ultra-nationalism does not reflect Ukrainian history, and the ‘new national consciousness’ is being built upon the worst history of the old. This new consciousness is not progressive, no matter that some Ukrainian socialists claim: that the war is an opportunity to create a progressive nationalist consciousness.
Its reactionary character can be seen in the views of many Ukrainians reported by the NLR editorial:
‘After the Maidan uprising in 2014, two-thirds of Ukrainians thought the country was ‘going in the wrong direction’, with a brief exception for the peace moves in 2019; now, over 75 per cent think it is heading in the right one. An overwhelming majority believes Ukraine will win the war, even though they think it may take a year or more.’
So, tens of thousands have been killed with many more injured; millions have become refugees at home and abroad; the economy has contracted catastrophically and the country effectively bankrupt. It faces a continuing war in which it either accepts defeat and loss of territory or it seeks to regain this territory against the wishes of much of the population it will conquer. All this is set to continue. This is not ‘heading in the right direction’.
Dig deeper, and it becomes clear that while the views of most Ukrainians may have been coloured by war, the long familiarity by many of the corrupt character of the state they are fighting for has not been forgotten.
The highest support is for the armed and security forces of the state, the most common expression of war in any country. Support for the President is also high. Support for other organisations is much lower and when it comes to the state bureaucracy, courts and political parties it becomes strongly negative. The expressions of hope among the majority of Ukrainians recorded in another opinion poll are not new; they have been raised many times before in the recent past, including, for some, after the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Maidan uprising in 2013/2014, plus the elections of various Presidents including Zelensky.
One of the most dramatic turnarounds in popularity is that of President Zelensky and this is the most marked illustration of the reactionary character of the war. Elected promising an end to corruption and peace he has been exposed as having his own offshore account, like previous oligarchs and corrupt leaders, appointing his own supporters to positions of power, and delivering his country into an avoidable war, for which he should not be absolved of his share of responsibility. His popularity is testament to the fact that he has, certainly he wouldn’t have had his picture in Vogue if he hadn’t.
Further evidence of the reactionary character of the war in legitimising the reactionary direction of the Ukrainian state are the words of one Ukrainian ‘socialist’ in a radio interview, who, while pointing out the regressive social policies of Zelensky, declares enthusiastic support for his policy of war, lamenting only that he does not unite the country to his satisfaction! His words have been spoken before by every social-imperialist lamenting that his capitalist rulers do not reciprocate their own prostration to their class enemy:
‘What the Zelenskyy government does is absolutely awful and creates a lot more social instability [inaudible] in times of war by using the situation as a pretext for attacking the rights of trade unions, of the people who are in precarious conditions, attacking of housing rights, of social rights, depriving of basic social securities for the needs of advancing their market fundamentalist ideology.’
‘At the same time, they are progressing privatization laws. They are even privatizing the [inaudible] industry, so in times of war, where war economy is needed and social dialogue and social stability is absolutely necessary to enforce, they are pushing for awful neoliberal reforms.’
‘They’re actually using the situation of the war to push for the most horrible reforms in economic democracy and trade union rights that were introduced a few years ago, that they failed to push at that time. For them it’s a possibility to achieve their vision of Ukraine. I wouldn’t say that it’s a pretty good vision, especially in times of war. It’s absolutely compromising the Ukrainian defence.’
The war therefore, contrary to the view of New Left Review (NLR) is not one of ‘Ukraine’s war of national self-defence’, and the growth of Ukrainian nationalism preceding and during it has not been the expression of universal emancipatory beliefs. As we have seen, the views are Russophobic even while presented by Ukrainian ‘socialists’ as ‘healthy’. These views are a more accurate reflection of the nature of the war being fought by the Ukrainian state than the strident appeals to democratic values equally hypocritically trumpeted by the West.
The view that the war is the responsibility of the Russian people (no doubt while it is also illogically maintained that Ukraine is more democratic than Russia) is confirmed by the earlier opinion poll quoted above. It recorded that while ‘86% of respondents believe that the Russian leadership is primarily responsible for the war in Ukraine 42.5% also believe that the same responsibility lies with the citizens of Russia.’ The poll, however, also records that ‘at the same time, about 20%, in addition, blame the Ukrainian leadership for the invasion, and 18% and 16%, respectively, blame NATO member states and the U.S. leadership.’ This shows a greater appreciation among a significant number of Ukrainians of the causes of the war than the left cheerleaders of the Ukrainian state inside and outside it.
This finding illustrates that there are still deep fissures in the Ukrainian population, even among those still part of the Ukrainian state. The process of radicalisation of the population by ultranationalism has not been comprehensively successful. This is one reason it is wrong to characterise Ukraine as either a fascist state or dominated by fascism. Equally however, it is more than disgraceful that Western left supporters of the war have sought to minimise or downplay its importance, which they would, one would hope, not be so keen to do if similar influence existed in their own countries.
The growth of nationalism has gone hand in hand with the process of ‘decommunisation’, both of which have had the function of covering for the attacks on working class living standards and political rights resulting from the drastic imposition of capitalism into a previously non-capitalist society. While directed at the symbols and history of Stalinism, decommunisation has been useful to discredit any left alternative to what is called neoliberalism. Nationalism has repeatedly been employed by successive politicians and their oligarch sponsors to deflect from the failure of their austerity to deliver improvements for the majority.
The hegemony of nationalism has been demonstrated again and again as even popular uprisings against corruption have been exploited by the far right to advance its cause. The inchoate strivings by many Ukrainians, for example in the Maidan uprising, have empowered the far right and its oligarch sponsors. Their leading role has endowed them with legitimacy and witnessed their slogans become popularised outside their ranks. Its historical figures, such as Stepan Bandera, have become the precedent for, and exemplar of, Ukrainian nationalism, to be celebrated in iconography, stamps, a national holiday, street names, demonstrations and re-writing of history.
This has also involved assimilation of prominent far right figures into other parties and into the armed detachments of the state’s security forces. Far right violence has been tolerated and sometimes important in setting the limits to state action, such as its implementing the Minsk Accords. The ideological influence of the far right has far exceeded their numbers.
The Atlantic magazine journalist interviewed a sculptor in Lviv who ‘could hardly keep up with requests from Territorial Defence units’ for busts of Stepan Bandera. When asked what she thought of his views, the sculptor ‘had little to say’. He was just a symbol of resistance – “Don’t fuck with Ukraine.”
The problem is not that the majority of Ukrainians have thereby become fascists, the excuse is often offered that they are not aware of his views. It is that his followers today have a standing that means they are not and cannot be challenged, and without challenge their reactionary views cannot be confronted. The post-Euromaidan civic nationalism of liberals did not therefore undermine ethnic nationalism but empowered it, helping exclude a radical socialist agenda.
The strength of the far-right reflects the nature and strength of Ukrainian nationalism, the latter is not a replacement for it. The assimilation, prominence and legitimacy of it all reflects not so much the independent strength of fascism in Ukraine, which is real enough despite embarrassed attempts to now minimise it, but the particularly reactionary nature of a mainstream Ukrainian nationalism that can assimilate it, accept its precepts and prominence, and lend it legitimacy. This is not simply an ideological problem, or even barrier to the left, but a threat to any idea of being able to reconcile to its rule to the populations of eastern and southern Ukraine the state wishes to reoccupy.
Ultra-nationalism influences the potential for continued war. The opinion poll above states that:
‘. . . the question arises, what can be considered a victory? The majority of respondents (55%) say that the withdrawal of Russian troops from the entire territory of Ukraine and the restoration of borders as of January 2014 can be considered a victory. Another 20.5% are even more radical – a victory in the war for them would be the destruction of the Russian army and assistance to the revolt/breakdown inside Russia. A relatively small proportion of respondents would consider the end of the war with some kind of concessions from Ukraine a victory. About 9% would consider the withdrawal of Russian troops from all of Ukrainian territory except occupied Crimea a victory, 7.5% would consider the restoration of the status quo as of February 23, 2022.’
But war imposes a view of its own, whether dressed up as national defence or not. In a recent Irish Times article the author of a book on Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’ reports his findings in a survey during the summer in three Ukrainian cities close to the southeast battlefields. He states that ‘almost half agreed it was imperative to seek a ceasefire to stop Russian killing Ukraine’s young men. Slightly more supported negotiations with Russia on a complete ceasefire, with a quarter totally against and a fifth declaring themselves neutral . . . Those most touched by the war, namely the internally displaced, were more likely to prioritise saving lives. Other research reveals that those farthest from the battlefields have the most hawkish attitudes.’
Maybe this goes some way to explaining the moral righteousness of those western leftists supporting the Ukrainian state’s war; that and their rotten politics.
The editorial of the most recent New Left Review covers the war in Ukraine. It attempts to ‘throw some light’ on the war through an analysis similar to that of Ernest Mandel’s examination of World War II.
Mandel claimed that the war could be defined as falling into five categories : an inter-imperialist war between the US, Japan, Germany and Britain; a war of a degenerated workers’ state – the Soviet Union – against German imperialism and its allies; a war of the Chinese people led by Mao Zedong against Japanese imperialism that also involved a social revolution against the Chinese nationalist regime; wars of national liberation in the colonies of European imperialist powers, and lastly wars of resistance against Nazi occupation waged in Yugoslavia etc.
All these involved imperialism on at least one side and were primarily the result of inter-imperialist competition arising from the forces of capitalist accumulation breaking out of existing national limitations. It is therefore correct to state that the war was an imperialist one in which the Soviet Union, certain European workers and peoples in the colonies found themselves fighting it in various forms.
New Left Review begins by stating that ‘there is no avoiding the question of the civil conflict within Ukraine itself. On its own, this could not have generated an international war; yet the fighting could not have escalated without it.’
This is already an uncomfortable analysis for left supporters of Ukraine for whom there is only one type of Ukrainian – the pro-western one – with the pro-Russian minority usually ignored. Their prime justification for support can’t allow that the nationalist demand for Ukrainian self-determination must exclude self-determination for this minority, since the Ukraine it supports is fighting against any such right that it claims only for itself.
It is of course argued, not least by anti-Russian Ukrainians, that their struggle is existential – the very existence of their country is under threat. This, however, does not address the problem that the self-determination they seek does not allow for equal rights to its minority.
The potential for a Ukrainian polity that did so was excluded even before the invasion of 24 February through its rejection of the Minsk Accords. This view also fails to recognise that Russia invaded with far too small a force to occupy all of Ukraine. It would not be in Russia’s interests to attempt an occupation of such a large country and this has clearly not been its aim; clear anyway to those not seeking any and every argument to support the Ukrainian state.
This does not mean that this Ukrainian view has no validity; the war has, like all wars, changed the coordinates of all the parties to it through imposing its own logic. Ukraine is the weaker party in any struggle against Russia and within these parameters would be expected to be unable to withstand the imposition of a new partition of the country demanded by Russia. In this case the existence of the remaining Ukrainian state would not be in question and Russia would require only that it be militarily neutral.
The intervention of the US and NATO has given Ukraine the belief that it can win, despite the devastation caused by the war including mass emigration; the occupation of nearly 20 per cent of its territory; economic catastrophe and effective bankruptcy staved off only by western finance, and the nightmare of the loss of electricity in the coming winter caused by damage to the power system by Russian missiles and drones.
This belief has meant Ukraine rejected a peace deal brokered by Turkey and has followed the advice, if that is the right word, of western imperialist backers that it should fight on to victory. This has meant a rejection of any negotiations with Russia and the setting of preconditions that it knows are unacceptable (such as regime change). The US has, however, now become concerned that this weakens support around the world for its client and is seeking to modify this appearance of intransigence.
Like its fervent left supporters in the West who also seek ‘victory’, the Ukrainian state is claiming – according to The Guardian newspaper – that ‘Ukraine [is] winning the war and therefore to sit down at the negotiating table now would be “nonsense”.
The Guardian reports that ‘Ukrainian presidential adviser, Mykhailo Podalyak, told Radio Svoboda, that Ukraine will only negotiate with Russia once Russian troops have left all of Ukraine’s territory, including those it occupied in 2014. The secretary of Ukraine’s security council said on Tuesday the “main condition” for the resumption of negotiations with Russia would be the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Oleksiy Danilov said Ukraine also needed the “guarantee” of modern air defences, aircraft, tanks and long-range missiles.’
In relation to any call for “genuine negotiations”, President Zelenskiy is reported as saying that ‘Ukraine had repeatedly proposed such talks, but “we always received insane Russian responses with new terrorist attacks, shelling or blackmail”. He went on to say that “Once again – restoration of territorial integrity, respect for the UN Charter, compensation for all damages caused by the war, punishment of every war criminal and guarantees that this will not happen again. These are completely understandable conditions.”
What is clear is that these war aims and conditions for negotiation guarantee only continued war. It would appear this approach is supported by many Ukrainians because they believe they can win, which in turn is a consequence of western imperialist support. The Guardian nevertheless records that ‘Kyiv would fight on even if it is “stabbed in the back” by its allies’.
In stating that the war is existential the Ukrainian leadership is unnecessarily making it so. It would be impossible for Ukraine to win the war without Western assistance and they have so far been unable to do so with it, regardless of the over-hyped gains made in recent months. The Russians have learned that they could not win it with the forces they initially employed so have carried out a ‘partial mobilisation’ of a reported 300,000 reservists with which they hope to establish what they would consider victory.
Since Russia long ago made it clear that a Ukrainian state as a part of NATO was unacceptable, victory would now be a buffer zone composed of annexed territory with enough local support to make it a relatively stable part of the Russian Federation. This is its solution to the political divisions within Ukraine, which is no more than a mirror image of the Ukrainian one.
It would be a relatively hollow victory if the remaining Ukrainian state was to become the base for a western imperialist threat, and the end-of-the-war conditions proclaimed by the Ukrainian regime involve precisely that; even excluding recovery of all territory lost since 2014 this would not be acceptable to Russia. The declared aim of “modern air defences, aircraft . . . and long-range missiles’ would establish exactly what Russia invaded to prevent. An effective air defence along with long-range missiles, which could only be pointed at Moscow, is what opposition to Ukrainian membership of NATO has always been about. Even now, in the middle of the war, the US has so far refused to supply long-range artillery shells.
The conditions set by Ukraine therefore imply that the objectives set by Russia can only be achieved by reducing the rest of the Ukrainian state unoccupied by Russia to one either incapable of representing a threat, with all the devastation that this would entail, or Ukraine declares its military neutrality and abjures any attempt to militarily recover lost territory. Since Ukraine would not accept the Minsk Accords, this looks unlikely unless western imperialism decides it will reverse its support for these conditions. This, of course, could all be fudged, just as the Minsk Accords were, but that is what has brought us to full-scale war.
It started because Ukraine chose to ally with western imperialism and is now dependent on it. The Russian invasion has turned the majority of its people even more decisively against it, to the extent that it appears that they will not agree to what they consider an unacceptable peace. They are prepared to continue a war that Russia considers involves its decisive interests, and in which it cannot therefore accept defeat because defeat in Ukraine would present a much greater threat and represent a much greater loss than that encompassed within the boundaries of that state.
In such a ‘stalemate’ the western left that supports Ukraine will no doubt demand a Russian retreat regardless of what that state conceives as its vital interests. It is as if the world could be remade according to some predetermined state of moral justice, and through the actions of western imperialism and its client state to boot! The full results of such a victory are scarcely considered.
They will likely go along with whatever support their own imperialist states provide until perhaps such escalation threatens more or less immediate face-to-face war with Russia. Their opposition would then be, as the saying goes, a day late and a dollar short.
Two years after the formation of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and after the October demonstration in Derry, O’Neill’s reform package, the Burntollet march, and only a week before Terence O’Neill’s resignation, members of Peoples Democracy were interviewed by New Left Review (NLR) on 20 April 1969. It is an invaluable record of what left wing leaders were thinking at the time. As one participant, Cyril Toman, said “coming together for this interview is probably the first time people here have discussed problems in any depth for months.” Apparently, the interview was rather chaotic.
The interview is a contemporary record of the many problems discussed in these posts, expressing the confusion that existed among the participants. As Bernadette Devlin says “we are totally unorganised and totally without any form of discipline within ourselves. I’d say that there are hardly two of us who really agree . . .” While Michael Farrell stated near the end of the interview that “we cannot form any high level organisation. As we do not yet have the theoretical basis for any clearly determined policies, in fact we have not even discussed some elementary problems.”
The NLR interview asks some of these basic questions. One of the first is why socialists were raising reformist demands, and we have discussed this question in a previous post. Eamonn McCann argued that the “transformation of Irish society necessary to implement these reforms is a revolution” and that therefore “we are definitely in a pre-revolutionary situation in the north . . . by supporting these demands in a militant manner, we are supporting class demands . . .“ How does this judgement stand the test of time?
In other posts it has been noted that class demands were viewed as separate from the demands for civil rights and that there was not enough emphasis on the former. In this interview the participants appear to assume that socialists should attempt to lead the civil rights struggle although this, of course is not in itself an answer.
I have also expressed that, in my view, what existed at that time was not a ‘pre-revolutionary situation’, at least not as would refer to socialist revolution, and at most the grounds existed only for overthrow of the Unionist regime (not of British rule), which of course happened three years later.
While Michael Farrell argued for participation in the broad civil rights movement and the employment of civil rights demands to radicalise the Catholic working class, and to join these with agitation over ‘class’ issues that would have the potential to unite Protestant and Catholic workers; McCann states that “we have failed to get our message across.” “The consciousness of the people is still most definitely sectarian” he says, and argued that “the reason we have failed to get our position across is that we have failed to fight any sort of political struggle within the Civil Rights movement.”
This proved to be a major difference between McCann and Farrell, who argued that “we have radicalised the Catholic working class to quite a considerable extent and to some degree got across to them the necessity of non-sectarianism and even the fact that their Protestant fellow worker is almost as much exploited as they are. But we have failed to get across at all to the Protestant working class.” The rebuttal by Farrell is therefore not an unqualified one. Bernadette Devlin then argues that the real difficulty was “support from Catholic capitalists and bigots.”
The participants are asked to what extent they have leafleted Protestant areas, to which McCann argues that “all our failures spring from the lack of anything even resembling a revolutionary party.” This remark seems not to be a statement of the much-repeated non-explanation offered by many small left wing organisations for the lack of success in what they view as revolutionary situations. This is often a non-explanation, because such a party is the creation of the working class and if it has not been created this reflects not simply, or mainly, on socialists but in the under-developed class consciousness of the mass of workers.
In the case of Northern Ireland, the consciousness of workers was formed by sectarian division and support for nationalism and unionism. Too often the objective determinants of class consciousness are under-estimated, ironically by Marxists, and lessons drawn from a different set of historical circumstances, often ones where there has obviously been socialist radicalisation of mass sections of the working class. Lessons are then mechanically applied to circumstances where this is very definitely not the case.
Rather it seems to be a statement that independent intervention by socialists had not been coherent enough, that the civil rights movement would specifically not issue a leaflet and opposed issuing one. For McCann the lack of organisation stemmed from being dissolved politically into the Civil Rights movement – “a crucial error and a grievous one.”
Cyril Toman argued that the original difference between themselves and “the bourgeois Civil Rights leaders was that we advocated action and they didn’t” but that they have now “begun to advocate action themselves.” He then warns that such actions would propose “mindlessly militant actions across the province, and that instead of forming any socialist party (we) will have to chase all over the place trying to scrape up some meaningful debris from these actions.”
The interviewer poses the question whether socialists were performing a service for the Civil Rights Movement rather than vice versa, to which Toman replies that “yes, this is broadly true.”
Socialist activists across many struggles and campaigns have often been told that they must be the best builders of any campaign in order to win recruits to their ranks but the example of the Irish civil rights movement is that being the most militant fighter for a cause short of socialism, while good and often necessary, is not sufficient to advance the ultimate aim and does not necessarily entail the development of class consciousness in those participating in the struggle.
The struggle for civil rights did not engender a significant socialist movement and the struggle against imperialism that commenced following it didn’t either. Asserting the primacy of ‘anti-imperialist’ demands as the first step in approaching struggles, sometimes involving support for purely nationalist demands and movements, has also not proved fruitful for socialists.
Undoubtedly the complexity of the situation facing socialists at this time created much confusion, but this was caused more by the restriction of the struggle to the North of Ireland, which hampered its development in a socialist direction. The weakness of socialists was reflected in arguments over how sectarian the Catholic population was and how there was no movement in support from within the Protestant working class.
This led Farrell to speculate on dual power in Catholic areas versus pursuit of working class unity around reformist demands. It might be said that at this time socialists in effect fought for the latter and then later for the former, and both failed. This is not a question of blame but of recognition that socialists were subject to very unfavourable forces, that constrained them more than they shaped events.
McCann argued against any notion of ‘Catholic power’ which he argued existed in Catholic run councils, which although was a reasonable point, is not quite what Farrell speculated on. His alternative, in so far as he could express it in such an interview, was – giving the important example of housing – that socialists should demand nationalisation of the housing societies.
As expressed many times in this blog, nationalisation is not socialism, and in this case the nationalisation by the Unionist state, that socialists were fighting to destroy, could only mean nationalisation by the British state, whose power and rule they would later explicitly seek to remove.
The particular character of nationalisation in these circumstances makes clear the nature of such a demand: reliance on the capitalist state to do what socialism requires the workers to do themselves.
For McCann “we have failed to give a socialist perspective because we have failed to create any socialist organisation’, although he goes on to argue that “we cannot form a Bolshevik party overnight . . . we must try to set up some sort of radical socialist front between republicans and ourselves.”
As I have argued already, Irish republicanism is a form of militant nationalism and this proposal from McCann appears not to be consistent with drawing a clearer demarcation between socialists and the representatives of purely Catholic rights, which he also advocated. Nor does it appear consistent with the emphasis on seeking support from Protestant workers. The point here is not to damn McCann for inconsistency but to look at the arguments than recur again and again among Irish socialists.
So, in 1969 there was to develop a more or less open struggle within Irish republicanism about the way forward, between advocates of a more left-wing direction and more traditional republicans. The traditionalists opposed dropping the customary policy of abstentionism in the Dial and continued to advocate the overwhelming primacy of armed action.
In this situation McCann could be said to be correct to seek some form of approach to unity with left members of the republican movement in order to advance socialist politics and organisation. It is more than unfortunate that this leftward move was to take the form of Stalinism, which ironically represented an incomplete break with nationalism (see their descendants’ support for Brexit) and also ended up in a dogmatic adherence to limited reform of the North.
The problem with this approach was not that unity among the working class was to continue to be pursued, but that pursuit of this led more and more to capitulation to the unionist politics of the Protestant working class to which this unity was directed. When practical political unity seemed only possible through ditching politics that would have made such unity worthwhile and progressive, and in the interest of the working class as a whole, the Official Republicans ditched the politics while failing to achieve any unity around even a mildly reformist programme. If they have had some consolation, it is the poor one of seeing their Provisional rivals consummate the defeat of their alternative.
In answer to McCann, Farrell emphasised that “we have to explore the radical possibilities of the base that we do have, at this moment, among the working class, and that base is the Catholic section of the working class.” This too might seem to some degree obvious, as in having to start from where you are, but the question raised next in the interview was where that was – “you all seem to agree that the road to socialism in Ireland must pass via the Protestant working class. Is that so?”
Toman said “I would answer that by saying bluntly, yes”. Baxter qualifies this by saying “you cannot move in a socialist direction unless you have the support of some sections of the Protestant working class. Otherwise they will start a sectarian struggle, and all the forces of Catholic reaction will swamp us.”
Farrell answered differently by arguing that “Northern Ireland is completely unviable economically . . . The unification of Ireland into a socialist republic is not only necessary for the creation of a viable economy, it must also be an immediate demand, because only the concept of a socialist republic can ever reconcile Protestant workers, who rightly have a very deep-seated fear of a Roman Catholic republic, to the ending of the border.”
While it is true that there has always appeared little interest for Protestant workers in supporting a capitalist united Ireland, the fact remains that for many, their reactionary sectarian politics means that they are in complete opposition to any concept of socialism as well.
Decades of elections have demonstrated this, and while the more recent defeats of the Catholic Church in the South of Ireland have undoubtedly lessened antipathy of many Protestants to the Irish State, this has revealed Unionism as perhaps the strongest standard-bearer of reactionary social ideas that generations of socialists have claimed was the real cause of Protestant workers opposition to a united Ireland.
How difficult winning Protestant support would be was made clear at the time in a document produced by Eamonn McCann that recounted the experience of taking the civil rights and socialist message to Protestant workers in the Fountain area of Derry.
McCann and Bernadette Devlin went into the Fountain and found themselves talking in front of a small audience in a kitchen, during which McCann explained that the civil rights line was one of “justice for all sections of the Community etc., and put it to them that the minority rule of Derry Corporation was indefensible. How could they justify it? A middle-aged woman told me immediately: “But if you Catholics were in control there would be no life for us here. We would have to leave our homes and get out.”
McCann told them that this was ridiculous and that they had been brain-washed by the Unionist Party, but he gives them an alibi, that the movement had not made it clear what it was for, it had attacked unionism – the political philosophy accepted by most Protestants – but not any form of nationalism or any Catholic, which within the movement would be “howled down.”
As we have seen in the previous post, this was put forward as a real problem but it was not one that could be solved by any organisational change, but reflected the interests of the middle class leadership of the Derry Citizens Action Committee and the mass of Catholic workers unwillingness at that point to challenge it. Inside or outside the DCAC it would still have to be challenged and it is at least arguable that socialists were in too much of a minority to stand outside making the argument.
Above all, this episode illustrates the central tragedy of the civil rights movement and its anti-sectarian objectives. Faced with the argument that minority rule in Derry was unjust the Protestant woman explained that it was justified and that Catholics could not possibly be in control. Equality was not acceptable. This was the message that led the civil rights struggle to be submerged by sectarian division.
In 1969 the Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel wrote an article for ‘New Left Review’ that discussed the question “when, why and how will the great majority of the American working class (the white working class) revolt . . . by making a socialist revolution.”
He went on to say that “in the history of the world socialist movement, there are only three fundamental answers to this question. One is the answer given by utopian socialists, and various propaganda sects of very different colours and origins, who all agree on one basic point: that the working class (or mankind for that matter) will never move towards socialism as long as it has not ‘seen the light’—i.e. let itself be persuaded by the particular creed of the particular sect in question.”
“The second answer, diametrically opposed but parallel to the first one (and as fundamentally wrong) is that ‘when objective conditions are ripe’ (when ‘the productive forces have ceased to grow’; or when ‘misery has become unbearable’; there are many variations of fatalism), the ‘workers will become socialists’ and ‘make a revolution’.”
“The third and correct answer, that of the classical socialist movement, perfected by Lenin, says that workers will make a revolution when (a) socialist consciousness has been introduced in their midst by an organized vanguard; (b) this consciousness merges with a growing militancy of the whole class, which is a function of growing social contradictions, and (c) that militancy emerges into an objective situation of sudden and extreme instability of the ruling class (a ‘prerevolutionary situation’, a ‘revolutionary crisis’).”
I don’t agree with this third answer. Experience has been that point (a) has been very much like the first answer; that (b) is just a restatement of the second answer and that (c) is an inadequate basis for socialist revolution, as this series of posts on capitalist crises has hopefully demonstrated.
The introduction of socialist consciousness by an organised vanguard can only be something more than a propagandistic sect if there is some material basis for the generation of socialist consciousness among the working class. By the latter I mean recognition that workers must own the means of production, not capitalists and not the state, and that they need to rule politically, through their own state. A small propagandistic group cannot generate and convince millions and a vanguard would need to be so large that it needs explanation itself and is not an explanation.
Militancy is necessary arising from social contradictions but this militancy is never without purpose so the nature of the contradictions on which it is propelled plays a large role in determining this purpose, in channelling the militancy along certain lines, towards certain solutions and with a certain consciousness and political understanding appropriate to it. Militancy usually takes the form of action around the role of the workers as seller of his or her labour power – over wages, conditions or the inability to sell labour power at all and suffering from unemployment.
Since the key to socialist consciousness is rejection of labour power as a commodity, the ‘wages system’, there is a qualitative leap in consciousness required from such militancy. Reformist politics which simply seeks better terms for the sale of workers’ labour power is normally better placed to represent and capture such consciousness, whether this reformism genuinely seeks to achieve the aims of the militancy or not.
So whatever contradiction exists within capitalism that brings to the fore workers’ lack of ownership of the means of production is best placed to provide the soil and nourishment for the socialist consciousness out of the militancy generated by this contradiction.
So a better definition of the conditions conducive to socialist revolution would involve, if we take Mandel’s approach: (1) a socialist vanguard which is a mass movement that is derived from a fundamental objective feature of capitalism committed to the conscious building by workers of a mass party plus (2) a wider militancy that is based upon a contradiction of capitalism that points to socialism as the resolution. These are two expressions of the same process with different levels of consciousness characterising different layers of the working class arising from the relevant capitalist contradiction, which is necessary for (3) any crisis of class rule, which is to lead to socialist revolution.
The key is not therefore the crisis or, as Mandel puts it at the end of the article: “these subjective factors, reacting from the social superstructure on class relations, cannot be the main cause of a new mass radicalization of that working class. The main cause can only be found in a change of material conditions. The growing crisis of American imperialism can only transform itself into a decisive crisis of American society through the mediation of a growing instability of the American economy. This is our key thesis.”
Crises are an intrinsic part of capitalism; like troubles, we do not have them to seek. What we do have to seek is the objective contradictions of capitalism upon which a subjective socialist movement of workers can be built. And like crises, the contradictions of capitalism are also not hard to find. The creation of a workers movement that seeks their resolution in socialism is the task and not a vanguard that can lead workers to take advantage of episodic crises, which are not permanent, to seize political power without first having established that for the working class itself this is what its objective should be.
Just as capital is both a thing and a social relation; money, commodities, machinery and factories etc. while also the relation of the exploitation of workers labour power to create more value than that which they are paid; so the movement that overcomes capital will be both a thing that demonstrates the objective overcoming of capitalism and also the relation of workers breaking from capitalist exploitation through breaking the monopoly ownership of the means of production.
In 1974 Mandel engaged in a debate with Bill Warren, a writer with quite different views, about the capitalist crisis that had developed at that time and about what the crisis meant for the strategy for a working class conquest of power.
Warren argued that capitalism and its development of the productive forces was less and less effective in responding to the social needs of workers which the system itself had developed. This incapacity of capitalism was reflected in the increasing role of the state which carries out roles of economic distribution that allocation through the market cannot. The working class develops new aspirations for itself and becomes a decisive factor in the direction of this increasing state control.
Warren therefore writes that “It therefore seems to me that the long-run strategy of the working class must be to centre the struggle around the control of economic policy. To put it somewhat differently: if the working class is to develop as the leading class within society, as a hegemonic class, it must itself become a leading class within capitalism before it conquers state power. . . it seems to me that the present characteristic of Western capitalism is not one where the working class can rely on stagnation, slump or decline in order to conquer power, but, on the contrary, must rely upon its ability to increasingly lead society in such a way as to control the economy in a fashion more relevant to social need.”
Mandel disagrees and comes straight to the point:
“I would agree with Bill Warren that the case for socialism should not be based on the fact that capitalism produces increasing misery, or even a decline in material wealth . . . I do not think that the working class can become the leading class in society before it has taken political and economic power. I think that the very characteristic of the capitalist economy is that you cannot run that economy on basic lines other than those of capitalist interest. That is to say: on the lines of profit.”
Warren’s reply is that the British economy had already changed dramatically since the 19th century, that a large proportion of the population was employed in non-profit sectors and a large part of investment was state led. This is a process that had taken a long time but one which had gradually been able to impose working class social priorities on capitalism. The problem has been that the working class had not attempted to carry out these changes within capitalism as a leading class, as a class leading society in order to bring about its social priorities.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that it has not acted as a dominant class within society, but rather as a subordinate class, it had nevertheless brought about extremely fundamental changes in capitalist society. What’s more to the point, it had been able to bring these changes about without any major disruption in the ability of capitalist society to continue to work relatively effectively. These extremely fundamental changes had been compatible with the operation of the profit motive.
He went on to argue that “The kind of process that I am invisaging, in other words, is one in which the working class actually intensifies class struggle over the imposition of social priorities, but does so in a way which is consistent with a realistic way of keeping the capitalist economies operating. This has already happened in the past.”
Mandel concludes by recognising that “the might of the working-class movement has enabled it to realize through society, to impose on the capitalists, a certain number—I would be much less optimistic than he in my assessment of its achievements—but a certain number of social priorities. That is the main contribution which the working-class movement has made up to now, through the improvement of the situation of the working class and to the change in social conditions in general. There is no dispute about that. People who dispute that would dispute the very existence of more than 100 years of mass organization of the working class. But I would strongly deny the possibility that this process can grow in an unlimited way without bringing social and economic contradictions within the capitalist system to an explosive point.”
Chris Harman’s article on the Common Market signalled the adoption by the International Socialists of opposition to British membership of the European Economic Community. In doing so it came into line with the majority of the rest of the Left. Like the International Marxist Group (IMG) and others, IS was keen to differentiate its position from that of reformist organisations, particularly the Communist Party (CP) and left of the Labour Party.
It is worth remarking that the political positions of the Communist Party during this period are very similar to those of the Left today, including the successors to the IS and IMG, which thinks of themselves as opposed to the sort of Stalinism represented then by the CP and as advocates of a more revolutionary alternative.
The CP statement on the Common Market quoted by Harman states that:
“A new government, committed to socialist policies, would use its parliamentary majority, together with its mass support in the country, to challenge the power of the ruling class. The developing movement to the left over recent years points in this direction. That is why the ruling class, as part of its attack on positions gained by the working class, is out to deprive Parliament step by step of its authority, and to transfer it to the supranational institutions of the EEC …”
The CP concludes that “Britain’s national sovereignty is of vital concern to the British working class. Sovereignty is a class issue”.
In opposition to this Harman states that:
“A consistent socialist position on the Common Market must begin by rejecting out of hand the chauvinism explicit in the approaches of the Labour leaders and the established left. The national state is not our state. It functions to defend the ruling class, and cannot operate in any other way. The harping of the left about ‘national sovereignty’ only serves to sustain the illusion that somehow we have an interest in common with those who run the state at present. It intensifies the differences between workers in different countries. And it does so at a time when the growth of international firms emphasises the need for united international working class action. .”
Harman warns that nationalism can be a competitor to socialism within movements expressing social discontent, that this can take the form of right wing Tories such as Enoch Powell but can also arise within the working class movement itself. The parallel with nationalism today in the form of UKIP and the left embrace of Scottish nationalism is striking.
Nevertheless Harman puts forward a number of reasons why it is “imperative for us to oppose entry” into the European Economic Community:
“1. Entry is being used, alongside other measures, to hit at working class living standards and conditions. Of course, if the ruling class could not achieve its ends through entry, it would try to get what it wanted through other means. We should never forget this as those who peddle chauvinistic ideas within the Labour movement do. But that does not provide us with a reason for not opposing entry. We should oppose it as we would oppose other forms of attack if they were used instead.
Entry is aimed to rationalise and strengthen capitalism. It is an attempt to solve certain of capitalism’s problems by capitalist methods. There was a time when revolutionaries could regard certain such measures as historically progressive. Marx, for instance, gave support to the movement for German unity. . . But he did so in a period in which capitalism as a system was still struggling for supremacy against older forms of class society and, in the process, preparing the preconditions for socialism. Today, however, these preconditions exist. Rationalisation of the system means strengthening it at a time when we as socialists argue that revolutionary change alone offers mankind any future. We have to oppose such measures, counterposing not continuation of the system under its present form, but a. socialist transformation of it.
Not only is the rationalisation of capitalism no longer progressive in any sense, it also speeds up the development of intrinsically destructive forces. In the case of European integration this is expressed in the aim of creating on a European scale what cannot be built up by the isolated states – an effective independent arms potential. According to the British government white paper there is no other way by which British imperialism could have the same opportunities to ‘safeguard’ its ‘national security and prosperity’. Revolutionaries have to oppose this as they have opposed previous arrangements serving the same purposes, e.g. NATO, SEATO, etc.
“There is a fourth, subordinate, reason, that emphasises the need for clear opposition. All summer the makers of official opinion in this country have been worried about the difficulties of ensuring that the decision of the ruling class to go into the EEC is implemented politically. They fear that they might have difficulty getting parliamentary ratification for entry. And so they have been putting enormous moral pressures on sections of the Labour leadership to break with the party and to vote with the Tories for entry.”
“At such a political conjuncture the position of revolutionaries should be obvious. The defeat of the Tory government, in the present context of growing working class opposition to its policies, would give a new confidence and militancy to workers – even if the defeat occurred purely in the parliamentary sphere. Moreover, a defeat on the Common Market would not in fact be a defeat on that issue alone; behind much of the working class opposition to entry is a general, if vague and not fully conscious, distrust of the government’s intentions. The general anti-Tory feeling in the country is feeding the flames of opposition to the Market.”
As the alternative Harman put forward the following:
“In general, our position should be that
We oppose the attempt through the Common Market to rationalise capitalism at our expense.
We also oppose the ideological illusion being peddled in the labour movement that somehow a ‘sovereign’ capitalist Britain is a real alternative to entry into the Market for working people. We have to make clear that while we oppose the capitalist integration of Europe we would be for a Socialist United States of Europe. However, the demand for the United States of Europe is not going to be an immediate agitational demand in the conceivable future. That would require that political life was really moulded on a European scale. The fact, however, is that the failure of capitalist attempts at European integration means that national peculiarities still determine the tempo of the class struggle. In the Belgian and French general strikes (of 1961 and 1968) the key demands had to relate to class power in particular countries not in Europe as a whole.
We argue, against the chauvinists, for a linking of opposition to the Common Market to opposition to the other attacks on working people – the Industrial Relations Bill, the welfare cuts and so on, so as to build up a class based opposition to the whole range of government policies, counterposing demands pointing towards a socialist transformation of society.
At all possible times we put forward our own consistent class based viewpoint in opposition to that of the confusion of the CP and the Tribunites (left of the Labour Party). But if we are unable to get a majority for our clear and consistent positions, we have to vote against the government Common Market strategy in the only way possible – by voting with the CP and the Labour left while making our reservations known (just as, for instance, we would, if we had no choice, give critical support to a resolution opposing the Industrial Relations Law, even if it spoke in terms of the law aggravating ‘industrial unrest’). We are completely steadfast in our opposition to the peddling of ideological illusions in the Labour movement, while being relentless in our opposition to government policy.
Harman’s argument did not go unanswered. In the same issue of ‘International Socialism’ Ian Birchall quoted from previous editorials of the journal from 1961 and 1967:
“For us the move to Europe extends the scope of class struggle in which we are directly involved; it worsens its conditions for the present. But it makes ultimate victory more secure. (Editorial, IS 6, Autumn 1961)”
“It is true that Wilson’s Common Market policy does involve a serious threat to working-class living standards, and is designed to strengthen the hands of the employers in the fight against workers’ defence organisations in the struggles over speed-up, rate fixing, and working conditions. But inside or outside the Common. Market, that particular battle is going to be fought – indeed, outside the battle is likely to be more ferocious. (Editorial, IS 28, Spring 1967)”
Birchall notes “that the editors of International Socialism once argued, clearly and consistently, that we must not carry out any kind of campaign against entry. Now that Heath appears to be about to succeed where his predecessors failed, Chris Harman argues that it is ‘imperative for us to oppose entry’.”
Birchall then presents some arguments against Harman: some are good and some are not. So he says that changes in general objective conditions might warrant a change of view on Europe, which seems obviously correct, but he also says that the growth of the Internationals Socialists from a small propaganda organisation to a larger organisation means ‘merely passive commentary would have to be replaced by agitational slogans’. This however doesn’t seem to me to justify in itself any change in policy but merely how such a policy is put into effect.
Among the better arguments employed, Birchall notes that Harman’s third is the “least substantial”:
“the suggestion that the Common Market aims to create an ‘effective independent arms potential’. This is supported merely by a quotation from the woolly rhetoric of the White Paper. The failure of the Common Market to achieve integration in other fields is argued elsewhere in this journal; there is no reason to expect a frightening success in the military sphere.”
Experience since the early 1970s has shown that the European Union has not developed into a military alliance that can, for example, replace NATO.
He regards the first argument as the “more substantial” one, although since Britain and the Irish state have long since joined, it is now less relevant, since attacks on the working class are a simple feature of capitalism and continue in or out of the EEC/EU. He repeats the argument that the attacks associated with membership had already been going on for some time before Britain attempted joining.
He makes an important point about how socialists relate to the opposition of workers to attacks on them that do not take a progressive form. On Harman’s observation that ‘many rank and file militants instinctively distrust the government’s entry policy’ he says:
“It is undoubtedly true that working-class opposition derives from a sort of class consciousness. It is equally true that, for example, hostility to foreign workers in Britain derives from a form of class consciousness – concern to defend employment and conditions, recognition that immigration is manipulated by the bosses in their own interests. We have to relate to these forms of distorted class consciousness; we certainly do not adapt to them.”
So, for example, opposition to austerity make take the form of nationalism. Socialists should relate to this opposition but not adapt to the nationalism, and certainly not trumpet it. Socialists and socialism, which is based on internationalism, while relating to those expressing progressive strivings, albeit through a reactionary form, should make their opposition to this reactionary form even more total.
On the second argument, he denies the claim that the EEC is in any way a progressive development because it lays the basis for socialist internationalism. He accepts the view that capitalism “cannot achieve a genuine international organisation” but since what he really means by this phrase is so ill-defined it is difficult to make much of this.
He appears to criticise the view that capitalism cannot solve its problems anymore, cannot develop in some ways and so cannot make “technical” and “administrative innovations which could not be taken over by a socialist society. We do not oppose automation or mergers as such; we oppose them if and when they cause attacks on workers, through redundancies” says Birchall.
Ultimately however since neither he nor Harman thinks capitalism has internationalised sufficiently he does not think that they are in a position to formulate an international programme. This in part derives from the IS tendency’s, and its SWP successor’s, very un-Trotskyist insistence on not having a political programme of any sort, which, if they had one, would of necessity have to be an international one if it was to be socialist.
Such a view seems odd for the time and is even more wrong now, when globalisation has been a commonplace of analysis of economic development for decades. Without capitalist development there can indeed be no foundation for socialism to arise on these grounds but IS still subscribed to the view that a socialist revolution in 1971 was not only possible but a realistic prospect. Without the possibility of an international programme however it would of course have been impossible, since socialism is international or it is not socialism. Yet to further the contradictions within both Harman’s and Birchall’s argument, they both appear to agree that the preconditions for socialism existed.
The important point within this argument is the view that capitalism is no longer capable of any progressive development. What is posed is simply the struggle for socialism. That there does not exist the material basis for the generation of an internationalist consciousness among workers, which would be a consequence of the lack of international organisation by capitalism postulated by Harman and Birchall, goes unrecognised or unacknowledged. The implications of this problem for the perspective of socialist revolution are simply overlooked.
To go back to Tom Nairn in New Left Review, where we started this series of posts: the source of the trouble is treacherous leaders who betray the working class – ‘the crisis of leadership’. This in itself is not an objective factor since capitalism is ripe for socialism, being in its ‘death agony.’ It has nothing more to offer in providing the preconditions for socialism.
But is it true that capitalism is incapable of further development? Is it true that such development would not contain, in dialectical fashion, progressive elements? As the blog linked here shows: of all the goods and services (use values) produced in man’s entire history, nearly 25% have been produced in the first ten years of this century.
And if the creation of this stupendous amount of wealth, involving the industrialisation of the most populous state on earth and others, is not enough – what about this blog here, which records the massive growth of the grave-diggers of capitalism, the world working class, caused by the same industrialisation?
As Nairn quotes Leon Trotsky in his long article
“It has happened more than once in history that, when the revolution was not strong enough to solve those historical problems ripe for solution, reaction has itself been forced to try to resolve them”. The EU is the capitalist, reactionary means of resolving the contradiction between the international development of the productive forces of society and the nation state configuration of political society and domination of the ruling classes.
The internationalist alternative proposed by socialism will be based on the common interests of workers resting on a common exploitation, imposed and more apparent for its expression in pan-European forms such as the EU. It will rest on the interests of workers of different nationalities involved in international workers’ cooperatives; international trade unions and an international party, perhaps initially a Europe-wide socialist workers’ party.
At the moment the international organisation of capitalism is in advance of the international organisation of the working class and of socialism. The answer is not to attempt to drag capitalism back to the immature development of the working class and existing socialist movement but, using the development of capitalism itself, to leap ahead of capitalist development so that the ground is prepared for the socialist revolution that will confirm the emergence of the new society that is the historical leap beyond capitalism.
Such are the issues posed by the British Left’s attitude to Europe in a forgotten debate conducted half a century ago.
In Tom Nairn’s review of the Left’s approach to entering the Common Market it is the debate within the International Socialists (IS), forerunner of today’s Socialist Workers Party, that is the most interesting.
The group’s debate on the EEC began in 1961 at the time of Britain’s initial application to join and, contrary to the almost universal position today, IS supported membership. In fact its approach was to ridicule the nationalist assumptions that lay behind the rest of the Left’s opposition:
“Tribune’s case against the Common Market remains unproven. The more one looks at it the more unrealistic seem the alternatives and the more it appears to be a defense of reformism. ‘Let us have a rich and sovereign Britain’, is what they are saying, ‘because only in such a Britain can we hope to use the State to better workers’ conditions’.”
This did not mean however that IS minimised the negative effects of membership and particularly of the pain that the bosses would attempt to impose in joining the European market:
“God knows the transition can be brutal. Rationalization of European capital might mean deep unemployment in some industries – shipbuilding, textiles, coal, agriculture, and more; it might mean a British loi unique to pass the costs on to the workers as a whole; it might mean concentrated European capital bearing down on a disunited, nationally-separate and disfigured European working class. It might mean these but it can mean more: in the same way as takeovers and the concentration of capital in this country have encouraged combine-wide organization of workers in joint shop-stewards’ committees, so we can expect to see – hesitantly at first – the internationalisation of similar rudimentary working class organizations.”
Although some of its analysis and argumentation can be challenged today, sometimes with that piercing weapon of hindsight, it is not the particular prognostications or faults in analysis that remain enlightening today. It is what is essentially different to the Left’s position today that stands out.
“If, in the long run, Europeanisation hastens this process, as it surely will, cartel Europe will have laid, as surely, the basis for the United States of Socialist Europe. For revolutionary socialists in Britain there is no greater aim. We should be the first to clasp hands across La Manche. . . . For us the move to Europe extends the scope of class struggle in which we are directly involved; it worsens its conditions for the present. But it makes ultimate victory more secure.”
These remarks, written for the autumn 1961 (No. 6) issue of ‘International Socialism’ were followed up in the next issue by some more, very honest, remarks on the debate that had been launched:
“Controversy over the Conservative Government’s move to enter the Common Market established by the European “six” as a preliminary to their complete political, economic and military fusion has riven every political grouping in Britain. The editorial board of this paper has not escaped the general confusion, as is made clear in the position of the majority (stated in the editorial note, Britain and Europe, appearing in the last issue). For us, however, the terms of reference are different. Discussion among Marxists is concerned only with the means most effectively to forge unity of the international working class in the struggle against capitalism.”
In this article the author takes issue with the majority position expressed in the first article:
“The majority statement recognizes the economic basis of the Six as the untramelled power of the giant monopolies. It proceeds to the statement that “takeovers and the concentration of capital in this country have encouraged combine-wide organization of workers”. True enough. But when, in the whole history of socialist thought, has this been adduced as a reason for socialists to support or welcome such takeovers or such concentration, which so clearly strengthen capitalism and weaken the workers? Why have not the authors of the majority statement the courage of their convictions? Having said A, why not say B? Why not lend support (“critical”, no doubt) to imperialism, which smashes feudal barbarism and transforms backward peasants into workers often more advanced politically than their metropolitan confrères?
Of course Marxists press for the fullest utilization of the channels of increased contact between workers whose bosses combine, nationally or internationally. But they do so on the basis of total opposition to such combination. . . . It is one of opposition to every move on the part of international capitalism to stiffen its sinews, whatever incidental “advantages” may accrue (and, indeed, dialectically must accrue) to the working class in the process. Marxist-Leninists in this situation raise anew their battle cry: for a united socialist states of Europe.”
Against the argument of the majority that opposition to the Common Market rests on an essentially nationalist view of socialist transformation the author argues the following:
“The majority ask us to dismiss as unlikely the unilateral victory in Britain of a revolutionary socialist party. The opinion is noted, with the observation that, while Marxists are agreed that socialism cannot be built in isolation (least of all in economically vulnerable Britain), that is by no means to say that power, to be held, must be seized simultaneously in all European countries. Let us, however, envisage a more immediate probability: namely, the election of a Labour Government—classically rather than militantly reformist!
What finer excuse could the leaders of such a government have against measures of socialisation than membership of a non-socialist (indeed, classical and militant capitalist) West European federation? This is an argument which, not accidentally, is seldom deployed by centrist and Stalinist opponents of the Common Market, imprisoned in the same parliamentary cretinism as the Right.”
In No. 11 of the Journal a further article takes up the debate:
“For the record: the Common Market is designed as an economic arm of NATO; its existence perpetuates the division of Europe; it is designed to further the process of monopolisation and concentration of capital at the expense of the West European working class; and it is a rich man’s club whose sponsors hope that it can compete successfully against US capitalism in Asia and Africa. Also for the record: Britain outside the Common Market is equally an economic arm of NATO, equally perpetuates the division of Europe; is witnessing a process of monopolisation and concentration of capital as ruthless as any; and it is as certainly part of the white man’s club if not its chairman.”
The real issue posed by the Common Market is this:
‘Several big groups,’ writes The Times (5 November), ‘have been deliberately streamlining their work-force in preparation for Common Market competition.’
“Several equally big groups have been doing the same as a consequence of the Common Market on the Continent. ‘In preparation for,’ ‘as a consequence of’ – these are the words we need watch. In itself, the Common Market cannot tilt the class balance against us. But if we get lost in arguments for or against instead of ensuring that workers neither pay for the preparations nor suffer the consequences in unemployment, wages or prices, it can and might.”
In the next issue a more extensive analysis along these lines is carried out by John Palmer:
“. . . far from the ‘six’ being the progenitor of the accelerated trend to monopoly and wage freeze, with all that it implies for the Labour movement, it is in fact the creation of wider forces, which themselves have created the need within capitalism for state intervention on behalf of the employers in a major drive to reduce costs and ‘increase competitiveness’.
Because these forces arise precisely from the situation of international capitalism, Britain cannot be immune from them whether she is a member of the six or not. This is the fact which, more than any other, should determine our tactical attitude towards the political issues raised by the proposed entry into the ‘six’.
Indeed the same drift to monopoly and state backing for wage control has nowhere been seen more clearly than in Britain. And it has been made abundantly clear that if the Brussels negotiations end in failure, far from this move to tougher industrial discipline easing, it will be considerably increased. .
“ A leader writer in the Economist writes:
‘Those who imagine that the pressure will be off if we stay outside (the six) are under a grave misapprehension. In fact it will mean that we shall have to implement a far more comprehensive policy of income control …’
Other writers and industrialists have also been calling for ‘a more ruthless pruning of Government spending’ as well as cuts in social service expenditure, lower food subsidies and so on. It seems then for the Labour movement to pose the Common Market alone as a threat to our National Health Service, to ‘cheap’ food and to wage bargaining, is short sighted in the extreme.”
“It should be quite clear by now that the battles the labour movement will have to fight in the future cannot be won within the confines of one country. Never were the perspectives of ‘internationalism’ more relevant and more practicable.
If the working class is going to successfully resist the most serious, attacks of the employers and their state, as capitalism gears itself for the coming structural changes evolving within the system, then the key to success will be the spreading of resistance to as wide an arena as possible.”
This approach involves such things as the following:
“At the level of the struggles for reforms, and this more directly applies if Britain joins the ‘six’, we should now be forcing the leaders of the Labour Party to seek from the other mass reformist parties a common platform in defence of the highest standards of social services, of securing the maximum possible democracy within the various EEC commissions, and so on.
However, since the struggle for Socialism must be fought within the confines of the capitalist superstructure, the Labour movement should not be wasting valuable time now fighting irrelevant liberal battles on the questions of national independence, ‘our British way of life’ etc. but should be gathering and coordinating its international forces on an agreed policy to obtain the highest possible conditions both at the point of production and within the social services framework of the state.”
Moving on from 1963 to 1967 (No 28 of ‘International Socialism’) the next contribution makes the following point, still entirely relevant today:
“It is true that Wilson’s Common Market policy does involve a serious threat to working-class living standards, and it is designed to strengthen the hands of the employers in the fight against workers’ defence organisations in the struggles over speed-up, rate fixing, and working conditions. But inside or outside the Common Market, that particular battle is going to be fought – indeed, outside the battle is likely to be the more ferocious. More to the point, there can be no positive class or socialist response based upon the defence of ‘our’ State, ‘our’, right to plan or ‘our’ sovereignty – they are not ‘ours,’ and the mere experience of how little the Labour movement runs this country when a Labour Government sits in Whitehall is surely vivid enough a lesson in that respect.”
This is still the position of the majority of IS but in the same issue the minority provides the arguments that were to become the majority by the time of the ‘great debate’ in 1971:
“. . . the nationalist and Statist arguments against the Market are not the only ones. The editorial chooses to dismiss the effects of entry in facilitating an attack upon wages and living costs; there may be a worse attack, it says, if Britain stays out. A political stand cannot be based on this play with imponderables. We know that Britain’s accession to Cartel Europe will tend to strengthen the ruling class. So ‘international’ is the perspective of the editorial that the whole role of the EEC in erecting barriers against the underdeveloped world is simply ignored. . . . The fact is that ‘The United States of Europe’ sticks out like a sore thumb among our other demands. It is a bureaucratic-Utopian piety, a typical instance of the pie-in-the-sky ‘blackboard Socialism’ that this journal has exposed so effectively at other times. Opposition to the Common Market (which in this country implies opposition to British entry) remains the only possible stance for Socialists.”
In explaining the opposition of the left in Britain to joining the Common Market in 1971 Tom Nairn argues that the working class had succumbed to nationalism long before and that nationalism had successfully corralled the rising working class movement in the 19th century. This of course eventually led to the mass socialist parties of Europe dropping their internationalist stance and supporting their own state in the slaughter that receives its centenary this year.
Having fixed the class struggle within national limits, within which it “acquired great inertia and the natural conservatism of hard-won reforms”, the bourgeoisie was able to seek new international or multi-national forms more appropriate to the expansion and development of the capitalist mode of production. “It does so very cautiously, amid great confusion and contradiction.” However in this movement “the principal asset of the western European bourgeoisies is a simple one: the absence of the left.”
The margin for manoeuvre afforded the leaders of capitalism is relatively large because the class struggle in Europe long ago lost any concrete international dimension. They are able to pose “questions to which the socialist and communist left simply have no answer . . . that is, except futile opposition, evasion of the issue, or a harmless rhetoric of abstract internationalism.” Nairn then sets forth how he sees the left’s intervention within the ‘great debate’ in 1971 exhibiting all these characteristics.
Just like today, opposition to the Common Market was de rigueur and taken for granted. It was opposition to a super-state – one bigger and further away, built in support of the biggest capitalist monopolies. As we noted in the first of these posts Europe was “somehow more capitalist in nature than Great Britain and the British State. The Common Market nations are either more capitalist than Britain, or they are capitalist in a more sinister sense; while the Community’s Brussels institutions represent the bureaucratic heart of darkness.”
“It would hardly be correct to call this a theory” remarks Nairn. He quotes the British Communist Party (CP) stating that the Common Market is ‘anti-planning, anti-socialist, anti-working class’. National governments and their elected Parliaments have no control over its gigantic bureaucracy and the British would be merely represented in the same proportion as the Italians ‘as one sixth of the population of 300 millions involved.’ ‘We would be virtually sunk without trace’ and parliament would no longer be supreme.
The nationalist and statist conception of socialism exhibited here by the CP is hardly a surprise but it is remarkable, despite the categorical collapse of the Stalinist states, how much of this Stalinism is alive today under the banner of many of the supposed Trotskyist organisations – from their bureaucratic and undemocratic internal functioning to their reliance on nationalisation as a socialist measure, their support for popular front types of campaign organisation and electoralism. And here: their opposition to the EEC.
What this illustrates is the good old Marxist dictum that being determines consciousness, that the material factors at play in society, the power of the capitalist mode of production and its state and the political movements supported and ideologies promoted by it, are more powerful than the purported political theories and programmes of small and isolated revolutionary organisations. So the revolutionary left organisations in Britain in 1971 opposed entry into the EEC while today there is no campaign to leave it despite the question arising now as a live issue, yet in between there has been no reassessment.
Nairn looks at some of the left objections to the EEC, which are still around today. On the Brussels bureaucracy Nairn points out that the employees of the Common Market Commission were approximately one fifteenth of the number working in one British Ministry, the Department of Health and Social Security. On whether the Common Market is capitalist or not he asks the question “how could a union of six or ten capitalist national states be anything else?” But the rational question for any socialist is “which of these two sets of capitalist conditions, the national or the Common Market, offers the best future environment for revolutionary thought and activity?”
Nairn remarks that, of the left in the anti-EEC campaign, “none of them – with the possible exception of the CP – looked happy inside it. On every hand one found doubts, qualifications, and reservations.” Nairn then looks at the arguments of various organisations on the revolutionary left, including the International Marxist Group (IMG).
The IMG opposed entry because “the Common Market is opposed to both the immediate and the long-term class interests of the labour movement.” “The EEC is a capitalist solution to capitalist problems.” However it lamented the lack of any scrap of socialist internationalism within the left of the Labour Party and argued that “chauvinism is a vicious enemy which must be destroyed.” The unity of the Labour and trade union leaders and the mass of trade union members in opposition to entry is a unity that “holds no future for the working class, and one which must be rejected and fought against.”
The IMG posit that millions of workers are discussing the issue and into this debate revolutionaries can insert the alternative of working class unity “and the strategy of a red Europe against the capitalist EEC.” This would involve “creating living links between workers’ struggles in the countries of Western Europe.”
In the same issue of the IMG paper ‘Red Mole’ Nairn quotes from an article by Ernest Mandel which looks at the EEC as an economic and political mechanism reflecting the internationalisation of monopoly companies and the need for British capital to join their competitors because it cannot beat them from outside.
Mandel concludes by stating that the most important factor in assessing the situation is “the dynamic of the class struggle.” Joining the EEC would cause immediate material losses to workers but they could compensate for this because entry would not reduce economic class struggle but would exacerbate it. Political radicalisation would be reinforced (although entry was still opposed).
So how could the statement that “the Common Market (is) opposed to both the immediate and the long-term class interests of the labour movement” and the one stating that an increase in economic class struggle and reinforced political radicalisation will arise from joining both be true?
Nairn records the isolation of the revolutionary left in the debate but that they protected themselves from being camp-followers of left nationalist opposition through “a certain degree of intelligent half-heartedness.” “Honour was saved, mainly by looking both ways at once and saying two different things at once.” For Nairn this position arose partly from the void where some sense of what internationalism meant practically should have been.
So what was the reason for this lack of socialist internationalism? Nairn quotes the IMG author: “ It is not the objective conditions that have been responsible for a lack of socialist internationalism in Europe but a failure on the part of the bureaucratically led labour movement to live up to its responsibilities.” So the alternative is then to build a revolutionary party.
Whatever about the truth of the latter as a definition of the solution there are problems with the explanation of the problem.
For small Marxist organisations of hundreds or thousands the nationalist consciousness of millions of workers is not a subjective factor. While betrayal of particular struggles on particular occasions has undoubtedly taken place it is hardly adequate to say that workers’ consciousness arises from having been betrayed repeatedly for decades otherwise the working class is essentially stupid.
What is the objective basis of workers consciousness over decades in all the most developed capitalist countries? A Marxist would look for causes as long-lasting and as deep seated and profound as the phenomenon which is in need of explanation and ‘betrayal’ doesn’t meet this requirement.
It makes no sense to say that reformist and nationalist leaders betray reformist and nationalist workers. The often contradictory character of workers’ consciousness can see their most radical and militant notions and impulses betrayed by their leaders but what has to be explained is why this radical consciousness does not predominate and why it can be betrayed, repeatedly.
Why is the lack of internationalist consciousness so pervasive among workers?
I will look at how the left has come to these questions in a future post but the next one will continue to look at how the question of the EEC was addressed by the revolutionary left in 1971 through looking at the debate within the International Socialists, forerunner of todays’ Socialist Workers Party.
The failure of David Cameron to prevent Jean Claude Juncker becoming President of the European Commission drew widespread comment that it will now be harder for Britain to stay in the European Union (EU). If the Tory Party wins the next British general election Cameron is committed to an in-out referendum by 2017. Under pressure from The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and from within his own Eurosceptic ranks he has developed a policy that has temporarily settled the in-fighting within his Party.
In Ireland referenda on the development of the EU have been fairly frequent. In 2001 Irish voters rejected the Treaty of Nice by 53.9% with only 34.8% of the electorate voting. The vote was held again in 2002 and the Treaty was passed by 62.9%, with 49.5% of the electorate voting.
In 2008 53.4% voted against the Lisbon Treaty (on a turnout of 53.1%) so once again the vote was re-held to get the ‘right’ result. The next vote in October 2009 resulted 67.1% voting in favour of the treaty, once again on a higher turnout of 59%.
The Left in Ireland has been in the opposition within these EU referenda and opposed the original entry into the European Economic Community in 1972, which was decisively approved in a referendum by over 80% of those voting. In Britain the Left also opposed British membership of the EEC in a 1975 referendum, which was passed by a majority of 67.2% in a turnout of 64.0%.
When I was in a second hand bookshop in Glasgow some weeks ago my attention was therefore drawn to an old copy of New Left Review from 1972, which was a special issue on ‘The Left Against Europe’. The whole issue was devoted to one article written by Tom Nairn on the ‘great debate’ in Britain in the previous year whether Britain should join the Common Market, as the EEC was popularly called. This debate eventually led to a vote in the Westminster Parliament to join and accession into membership in 1973, before the new Labour Government elected in 1974 held a referendum in 1975 to ratify staying in.
Nairn states that the debate was far from ‘great’ and that quotation marks enclosed the phrase from the outset. It continued what he called a ‘stale and exasperated argument about the topic which had dragged on for years.’ The Cameron promise shows that it still continues.
The ‘great debate’ Nairn says “never at any moment approached ‘greatness, or even excitement.” Nairn uses it however to examine the Left’s opposition to the EEC and this examination is worth looking at to see what lessons it provides for today. The issue of the EU matters to the Left and working class as much as it still does for the Tory Party.
Whether Britain stays in or leaves also matters to the Irish State. Its original membership was only viable if the British also joined and Britain leaving would create a real problem. Only last week it was reported that a delegation from the German Parliament’s Finance Committee had issued a report – that the Irish tax regime “had failed to reach one of the goals of Irish economic promotion, namely to be less dependent on Britain. Instead Ireland has moved from de facto full dependency on Britain to a shared dependency on Britain and the US in developing and securing employment.”
Nairn puts the British decision to join down to the hegemonic interests of finance in the City of London and the timing down to global monetary instability prompted by the dollar crisis that eventually forced the dollar off convertibility to gold in August 1971. He quotes the Economist magazine stating that a future attempt at monetary union within the EEC will see Britain in the inside, with the strongest financial centre and having a dominant say in what gets done.
Not quite how things turned out but this story isn’t over and the choice to join the Euro is one that still faces the British capitalist class.
Nairn notes the virtual unity of the Conservative Party in seeking membership of the Common Market and the limited opposition of a marginalised rump led by the arch-bigot Enoch Powell, who by coincidence, has had the depths of his bigotry recalled by a flag supporting him going up in a loyalist area of Belfast. Today the decline of the Tory Party into a backward, reactionary and ultimately self-defeating nationalism is evidenced by the ascendancy of Eurosceptics within that Party.
It is examination of the attitude of the Left however that is the purpose of this long 120 page article. The opposition of the Labour Party to joining the Common Market in this ‘great debate’, or the vast majority of it at least, is put down to pure opportunism. Under the leadership of Harold Wilson it opposed joining for purely party political purposes, Wilson having attempted to lead Britain into the EEC when in power between 1964 and 1970.
The ability of Labour to perform this U-turn is put down to the fundamentally nationalist character of the party. For Nairn, the Labour Party is not fundamentally a class or popular Party but a nationalist Party and its reformism and ‘betrayals’ of the working class a result of its nationalism. This nationalism is one shared in a basic sense by its supporters and voters, which explains why – despite the betrayals – they still support and vote for it. Otherwise the phenomenon of continued support despite continued betrayal become inexplicable, unless workers are to be understood as fundamentally stupid – voting again and again for people who betray their beliefs and expectations.
Nairn records the opposition of the Left of the Labour Party in particular and its opposition to the Common Market on the basis of ‘internationalism’ and ‘socialism’. In this respect the themes of the ‘great debate’ resonate today.
The Left in the Labour party presented Britain as more internationalist than the inward looking European States. Open, free trading Britain was compared to the protectionist EEC. Didn’t Britain look beyond the petty European states towards the countries of the Commonwealth and Britain’s wider role in international affairs and international bodies? The latter providing the basis for a real socialist foreign policy.
Entry into the EEC would erect obstacles to the fight for socialism in Britain and prevent further socialist measures by a future Labour Government. The EEC is a capitalist club and entry would mean the loss of the potential for socialism that does exist.
Refusal to enter this club would pose the question of an alternative, which would allow a socialist answer to be given.
The independence of Britain would allow the real popular character of the British nation to be revealed through its labour movement in a way that would be impossible within the rules of the EEC.
So what does this remind you of?
Well, swap Scotland for Britain and you have much of the Left nationalist case for Scottish independence today.
Just as the EEC is supposed to be more capitalist that the British state (God knows how) so Scotland is less reactionary than Britain (which is even less comprehensible). London rule is capitalist but somehow Edinburgh rule is less capitalist!
Left nationalists proclaim the international potential of Scottish independence in the same self-refuting way the Labour Party did in the 1971 ‘great debate.’ Nationalist separation is somehow internationalist. Why? Because somehow, again unexplained or simply incredibly, there exists more potential for socialism in Edinburgh than London; just as the nations within the EEC and the EEC itself were assumed to be barriers to socialism that the British imperialist state wasn’t.
Today one part of the imperialist state – with a history of disproportionate participation in empire building – is again more socialist, or with the potential for it, than Britain as a whole. Again while Scottish Left nationalists claim that the real Scottish nation is more left wing so did the Labour Party claim the real British nation was more socialist than the capitalist EEC, including such historical bastions of reaction as Paris and Rome.
Finally, even posing the nationalist question somehow gives rise to a socialist answer, or less extravagantly, gives rise to the potential for a socialist answer. But it’s as if, if you ask the right question in the right way somehow socialism will pop up almost naturally as the answer. And where is the evidence for this even when, as in Ireland for example, the capitalist crisis brought the Irish State to bankruptcy and exposed double standards that made working class people pay for the reckless gambling debts of the rich?
What more striking exposure of the rottenness of capitalism could be imagined? Yet still there has been no alternative created and still in both Ireland and Britain there is no successful resistance to austerity – the most immediate question to which the socialist movement has been unable to provide an answer.
What this exposes, among many other things, is that the essence of socialism is not the displacement or even destruction of this or that aspect of capitalism or its state but the development of the working class. Capitalism can only be superseded, at least progressively, by the development of something positive. Unfortunately the Left thinks always in negative terms – of what it is against – and when it looks to achieve even this it posits the existing capitalist state or some configuration of it, usually its own nationalist version, as the mechanism of transformation.
It is ironic that Tom Nairn ridicules the claims that the the fight against the Tories, for national ‘independence’, against inflation and for socialism were, in 1971, ‘all the same thing’. This is exactly the same claim made today in 2014, except we might replace inflation with austerity and support the claims of ‘Scotland’ instead of ‘Britain’. He shows how Labourism rejuvenated itself and re-established unity within its own ranks by claiming to unite British workers in opposition to bureaucracy and international capitalism. Except all this rested on the unity of British workers with the British state, shackled by the chain of nationalism.
But the question of Scottish separation is a derivative lesson to be drawn from reading ‘The Left Against Europe’. The major lesson is the need to give real content to the socialist claim that it is international by its very nature. Not an aspiration, not simply a goal to reach, an attitude to strike or an opinion to hold dearly but a practical and immediate part of its political programme.
What he says about this will be taken up in the next post.