New Left Review and the war in Ukraine (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*             *               *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluded

Back to part 2

New Left Review and the war in Ukraine (2)

Image: Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS

New Left Review states 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.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

New Left Review and the war in Ukraine (1)

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.

Forward to part 2

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism – part 12 Mandel vs Warren

mandel3In 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.”

to be continued

Back to part 11

Forward to part 13

The Left against Europe 2

PUB 193-23 - EuropeIn 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.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

The Left against Europe 1

DSC_0122The 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.

Forward to part 2