What sort of Anti-War Campaign (2) – A broad campaign?

Photograph Irish Times

In the previous post I argued that the argument for an anti-war campaign set out in this article is wrong and beset by numerous problems. So let’s consider its statements that demonstrate the accuracy of this judgment:

‘Our priority is how to mobilise the majority of people in Britain who recognize the reactionary nature of Putin so that we can build the biggest possible movement in solidarity with Ukraine. Secondly we need to organise the biggest possible audience for voices from Ukraine. Once we have achieved that we can then talk to them about the reactionary nature of NATO.’

So, the task is first to appeal to all those opposed to Putin and then tell them how awful NATO is.  Why?

Why would you not have a campaign against NATO and then try to tell them how awful Putin is?

Would it be because this would be more difficult or is it because the political analysis and principles that have ‘not’ informed their ‘shopping list of demands’ means that you have to oppose Putin first and then talk about NATO?  And why even talk about NATO since the reason opposition to Putin is prioritised is because NATO is completely secondary, if not irrelevant, to this particular war, at least according to their analysis?

But not only would a newly-found audience not appreciate being rounded up on false pretences, and be opposed to lessening Putin’s responsibility – so are the authors of the strategy!  The only justification to parrot support for ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ etc. is if they are not part of a de facto imperialist alliance with NATO and NATO has no responsibility for the actions of Russian imperialism – the mad, bad Mr Putin.

So, it is not the case that the political demands of the campaign are diluted in order to con an audience into the theatre; it is because this is the objective of the campaign – to oppose the Russian invasion and absolve the Ukrainian state and western imperialism of responsibility for a war that this state is fighting and NATO is supporting.  

It’s not that it isn’t smart politics to target NATO, but that NATO should not be the target.  It’s why such a campaign can avoid such inconveniencies as Ukraine being a capitalist state and a tool of imperialism in the conflict, and the fact that its armed forces even contain fascist units.  This latter point is secondary the authors might say.  And so it is, but only if what is primary is the capitalist nature of the state.  If the issue is defence of some sort of bourgeois democracy then fascist units are an issue of primary importance, not just to the workers of the Donbas etc but to Ukrainian workers as well. 

But the authors admit to a problem before they coral the audience into the theatre:

‘Anti-Capitalist Resistance has consistently presented views from Ukrainians and other eastern Europeans. But it would be much better if those views could reach the millions who already consider Putin reactionary (we would almost certainly need to clarify what exactly they mean by that; there are so many possible interpretations).’

Unfortunately many Ukrainian voices want a NATO imposed no-fly zone, risking a third world war; should the organisation amplify these views because they are Ukrainian?  Ukrainians come in all shapes and sizes, just like everyone else, and there are some voices socialists don’t need to hear never mind promote.  This is because there are different classes in Ukraine and different political forces representing them, which all talk about ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ covers over.

But a major problem is with the statement that ‘our priority [is]. . . to mobilise the majority of people in Britain who recognise the reactionary nature of Putin so that we can build the biggest possible movement . . .’ and their awareness that while people dislike Putin and think he is reactionary, this means that ‘we would almost certainly need to clarify what exactly they mean by that; there are so many possible interpretations.’

Some people might dislike Putin because he is ‘a communist’, a Russian, a criminal or used to be a KGB agent.  In these cases, they might be reactionary themselves; xenophobic, concerned about the integrity of the Russian state and not particularly its foreign behaviour, or dislike the particular clique that he has surrounded himself with.  Opposition to Putin is therefore no basis for an anti-war campaign; it clarifies nothing and leads nowhere except to amplify the prevailing imperialist narrative.

Above all it indicates no specific working class interest in the war.  Why would there be an independent interest of the British working class if none exists in Ukraine; the campaign, remember, is in solidarity with ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’, all without class distinction.

Opposition to Putin is also the policy the British state and its Government which therefore has stronger credentials in terms of solidarity – it is after all arming and training ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’.  Who needs a small lefty solidarity campaign when ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ calls for more weapons and more sanctions and Boris Johnson says yes.

The campaign called for by the article is already redundant, which is why they are ‘concerned at the small size of the anti-war protests’ and complain that ‘protests have been small and often divided.’  This is despite their acknowledgement that there has been widespread action and support for ‘Ukraine’ motivated by the Government, political parties and the propaganda campaign of the mass media, which also employs the language of ‘Ukraine’ and the ‘Ukrainian people’ and doesn’t require the language of class.

In such circumstances the solidarity proposed appears to most people be what it really is (so doesn’t require ‘all those fine analyses [that] will have no impact outside a narrow group of lefties’), which is simply a left wing variant of mainstream bourgeois thinking propagated by their political leaders and media; in objective terms western bourgeois solidarity with its fellow capitalist Ukrainian state and its ruling class. One that will help varnish the moral claims of all involved.

As the authors implicitly admit, were the campaign bigger there could be no way of determining what the motivation of any of their particular demonstrations were, given that ‘we would almost certainly need to clarify what exactly they mean . . . there are so many possible interpretations’, which brings us to another problem – the determination ‘to include the broadest number of people’.  

All the problems above are the result of deliberately seeking not to create a specifically working-class campaign but instead a broad campaign that is so deliberately wide it is in effect a cross-class one that eschews class demands.

In part this is totally unconscious because it has been the method employed by the left for decades.  The authors refer approvingly to the Iraq anti-war campaign and note the participation of pro-NATO Liberals and pacifists on its platforms.  The ultimate confusion is created by pretending you can oppose imperialist war while supporting the imperialists!

This campaign was a great success by the authors yardstick but it was still a failure.  The movement was once described to me by the late US socialist Gerry Foley as ‘like some mid-Western rivers – a mile wide and an inch deep.’  They denoted no general radicalisation and therefore no reason for western Governments to worry about their decision and the potential threat to themselves created by mass mobilisation.  I remember trying to sell a socialist paper in the middle of the road on the biggest London demonstration as hundreds of thousands walked past and never sold in double figures.

The war itself did not teach the participants any deep political lessons and the demands of the anti-war movement were almost guaranteed to ensure it.  Despite excited talk before the demonstration that we had to be out there to approach the mass audience with our ideas and our papers, those ideas had already been declared entirely secondary by the demands of the campaign and its open door to supporters of imperialism but not their war.

Not only did the mass of participant learn no lessons but neither did the socialists.  The article asks:

‘How do we mobilise the biggest number of people so that we have an audience where we can put forward our respective arguments about the nature of Putin’s Russia or the role of NATO.’

The method is entirely wrong, and while pretending to be non-sectarian is actually the opposite.  It forgets that the campaign is not a means of creating an audience for small left groups to deliver the ‘real message’ (as it might be put) but is the message.  In other words, the campaign is the means to organise to speak to British workers and the mechanism by which socialists explain the character of the war, why it must be opposed, who the enemy is and what their class interests are. It isn’t the audience, it’s the means by which we communicate to the audience – the working class.

The political lessons we want to teach are not the preserve of potential recruits to small left wing groups but are something the vast majority of British workers must learn and can only learn from mass activity.  The role of Marxists is to build the working class movement and to infuse it with socialism.  It is not to lead it by the nose by recruiting a ‘vanguard’ that can be put in the know about what is really going on.

With its inability, in any case, to set out an independent working class position on the war this is less important and is actually a silver lining on the cloud.  The cloud however is that the platform of this proposed campaign against war – through being against the Russian invasion by way of dislike for Putin – aligns with the policy of the British ruling class and its state and commercial mass media.  Through this class’s alignment with NATO, US imperialism and then the Ukrainian state, the putative anti-war campaign has taken one side in a war when opposition to it requires opposition to both.

Back to part 1

Foward to part 3

What sort of Anti-War Campaign (1) – A question of tactics?

This image is an advertisement for a Ukraine Solidarity Campaign meeting in Ireland

The war in Ukraine has revealed deep divisions amongst those describing themselves as Marxists, with references to Lenin and Trotsky aplenty and rebuttals against them quoted from the same sources.  It is however necessary to study this debate and read the references if you want to make any pretence at being a Marxist, while those who are not may learn why the arguments are important to human emancipation and an end to war, and not just this war.

Unfortunately, for some ‘Marxists’ this debate is unnecessary, as argued here.

The authors write that they ‘started by outlining in some detail the differences on the left about Ukraine. We outlined the now well-rehearsed arguments about: relative importance of NATO expansion versus Putin’s imperial project, supporting the armed resistance or de-escalation/no arms from the West, [and] is it an inter imperialist war or a just war against an imperialist invader?’

All pretty important in determining one’s attitude to the war you might think.  But no: ‘the discussion about how to build a mass anti-war movement on Ukraine should not depend on this level of argument involving principles and political analyses about history and the current invasion. No, building a movement here is about tactics.’ (emphasis added – Sráid Marx)

There are two aspects to this.  One is sheer dishonesty.  The movement they want to build is built on political analysis and principles, or some might more accurately say on their abandonment, but this is the less interesting aspect.

The second are the questions around what principles – that they no longer want to forefront – are correct and how they should be fought for, because the nature of these principles determines the nature of any anti-war campaign; something that should be obvious.

It is not possible to divide these aspects except conceptually, so it is possible to argue with people who will respond to the charge of capitulation to imperialism (in the form of NATO); and the charge of refusal to support an independent working class position (through their support for the Ukrainian state, its armed forces and its reactionary leadership), that this is simply not true.  These people claim that they do oppose NATO and do support the interests of the Ukrainian working class. But first things first, might be their response.

Unfortunately, these people will then continue to parrot support for ‘Ukraine’, the ‘Ukrainian people’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’, as if Ukraine is not a state, a capitalist state, and a corrupt capitalist state that socialists would not defend or support in peace but are asked to do so in war.  Likewise, the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ is made up primarily of the Ukrainian state’s armed forces, incorporating fascist units, with mass support for these armed forces in Ukraine making as much difference to its class nature as mass support for the British army in 1914 did for its imperialist character and its defence of Empire.

As for the formulation of principles and political analysis based on the ‘Ukrainian people’: is this people uniquely undivided by class, with their separate class interests?  Where did all the oligarchs go?  Is there no working class in Ukraine?  Did Marx declare ‘people of the world unite!’; call for the self-emancipation of ‘the people’ and analyse the origin of surplus value in the exploitation of ‘people’?  Do Marxists today call for ‘people’s’ control of production? Or does all this stuff have no application anymore?

Perhaps we are now being asked to believe that the interest of the Ukrainian working class is currently aligned with that of its state, which is aligned to that of NATO and imperialism, in which case the primacy of class struggle disappears when these forces go to war.  Marxism is fine but in war it’s first things first and this means it’s a question of tactics – ‘building a movement here is about tactics.’

‘All those fine analyses will have no impact outside a narrow group of lefties if we are unable to build a mass audience’ says the article, so it is a question of ‘how do we mobilise the biggest number of people so that we have an audience where we can put forward our respective arguments about the nature of Putin’s Russia or the role of NATO?’

So, what is the problem with this approach? – apart from the fact that it dismisses the role of principles and political analysis, which should really determine the nature of the campaign, its demands and its objectives. These unfortunately are dismissed as ‘a shopping list of correct demands’.

But let’s leave this aside for the moment, because there isn’t a single problem with it, there are many.

It is based on the idea that the task is to build a campaign on the lowest political level; that this is politically adequate, and then – having enticed this ‘mass audience’ into the theatre – it will thank you for telling them that they will be entertained by a different show.

It forgets that the lowest political common denominator is still a denominator.

You think this is unfair? Well in the next post we will look at the statements that justify this judgement.

Forward to part 2

On a Resolution in Solidarity with Ukraine

https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/ukraines-labour-reforms-threaten-its-already-precarious-workers/

British trade unionists are being asked to support a model resolution in support of Ukraine in the war with Russia.  It is not the usual generalised call for an end to the war and for peace but is explicit support for one side. For example, it calls ‘for Russian troops to cease fire and leave all Ukrainian territory immediately.’

There is no call for a general ceasefire, so it is in effect a call for surrender by one participant. It is not clear whether the call for the territory to be retaken by Ukrainian forces includes Crimea or the currently separate Donetsk and Luhansk areas.  Aside from the clearly impossible demand that only one army cease fire it is unclear what political settlement of the war is considered just and whether what is proposed might actually demand an end to one and the effective relaunch of another.

This is important not only from a principled point of view but also because such resolutions are designed to be relatively simple and practical with obvious steps to implementation.  They are also meant to establish a specifically working class view that demonstrates the common interests of, in this case, the workers of Britain and Ukraine.

These specific working class interests must establish their difference with that of the class enemy of British workers, which is the British state and its ruling class etc.  It must demonstrate that, just as the class interest of British and Ukrainian and also Russian workers are aligned, so are the opposing class interests of the British ruling class and its fellow capitalists in Russia and Ukraine similar, even if competition between them sometimes leads to war.  Such wars do not result in the capitalist class of the rival states being expropriated or the interest of their working class being protected, quite the reverse.

The resolution instead presents the Ukrainian working class–as an object of solidarity–only as a specific section of the Ukrainian people in general.  The idea that British workers should express a view to Russian workers probably didn’t cross the minds of the drafters of the resolution.

The difficulty in framing this unity of workers cannot be denied but the approach of the resolution categorically prevents it.

The resolution states that ‘the people of Ukraine have the right to defend themselves and to obtain . . . weapons’, and in so doing opens the door to Western imperialist intervention and support for its arming of the Ukrainian state.  There is no qualification to this, either in the armed support that should be given, or the identity of the ‘Ukrainian Resistance’ forces that should be armed.  These will include those who will happily turn any guns supplied against the Ukrainian working class and its left wing.

In the context of an unprecedented propaganda campaign that has included covering up the integration of fascist units into the Ukrainian state forces, and the lionisation of the Ukrainian leader Zelensky – elected to uproot rampant corruption but now revealed to having links to his own and colleagues’ offshore accounts – it perpetuates illusions in the reactionary class character of Ukrainian military and political forces.

Very helpfully, the most recent issue of The Economist magazine has a graphic of a ‘crony-capitalism’ index which, unsurprisingly, shows Russia way out in front.  Ukraine, however, is fifth.  This crony capitalism supports the Ukrainian state and its political leaderships, and is responsible for the corruption of Ukrainian politics and society.  Ukrainian workers have suffered from and opposed this corruption for many years but the agents of it are released from any responsibility by cries from the West that ‘Ukraine’ and the ‘Ukrainian resistance’ must be supported.

This resolution amplifies this rhetoric and shamefully avoids the separate interest of the Ukrainian working class; in effect it amounts to a call to follow its class enemies.  Whatever potential agency the Ukrainian working class has is buried beneath the cardinal imperative to defend the self-determination of the Ukrainian capitalist state.

Rather than demonstrate to British workers the common greed and corruption of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and British connivance with it, the necessary class differences are erased, perfectly mirroring the claims of the British, Ukrainian and Russian ruling classes.

The propaganda campaign in the West has presented Russia and Putin as uniquely evil.  By definition rather than just implication, the forces of the Western powers are the principled opponents of this evil – where else are the guns called for by the resolution to come from? British workers are asked to take sides in a war in which corporate and state media propaganda has blamed only Russia, an argument which the resolution explicitly endorses.  

The self-styled Marxists supporting this resolution state that in this particular case it is Russian imperialism that is the aggressor, and NATO ceases to be relevant.  Only sometimes, it appears, is NATO, Britain and the United States aggressive imperialist forces such as in Iraq.  Sometimes, it must be assumed, it is on the right side – the side of Ukrainian self-determination.  The framing of the war as purely Russian aggression prevents any responsibility being assigned to NATO and its powers.  Instead, workers are invited to support its military intervention and with no warnings even on the need to limit it.  Why would there be? For the resolution there is only one issue.

The declaration that NATO is opposed is empty in such a context and mention of its eastward expansion of no consequence.  In fact, its role is explicitly absolved as ‘Putin has used the pretext that Ukraine wanted to join NATO to justify yet another war for regime change.’ Anyone assigning any responsibility to NATO must presumably be joining in with Putin in giving a reason for the war that is not the real reason, echoing again the claims that placing anything other than full blame on Russia is to be a dupe of Vladimir Putin.

With explanation of the war confined to Russian aggression the real cause of the war, its nature and the principled socialist response cannot be argued.  What is left can only be agreement to support for the Ukrainian state from wherever it comes because the cause of the war, its nature and the principled response excludes opposition to NATO, US and British imperialism.  Such is the deception woven through the words of the resolution

The resolution states that it supports sanctions but that ‘we believe that sanctions should hit the Russian oligarchs and war machine, not the people.’  Since these sanctions are already hitting workers in the West and to an even greater extent threaten peoples in places such as North Africa, Middle East and East Asia, the idea that they will not hit Russian workers even harder is pure deceit.

Finally, all this is justified by the central need to ‘support the right of the people for Ukraine to self-determination without foreign military or economic pressure.’  If this were to be the case Ukraine would be the only nation in the world able to determine its fate ‘without foreign military or economic pressure.’  That the drafters of the resolution think this is possible, and particularly of Ukraine, shows remarkable ignorance of the country’s history and its permanent geographical position.

It also shows that they do not understand the demand for self-determination, which refers only to the right of a nation to independence from incorporation within another state.  Once formal independence is achieved the idea that workers and socialists should guarantee its freedom of action is a licence for every capitalist power to demand of its own working class and others’ that it be supported because its freedom is circumscribed by other capitalist powers.  It is a perfect recipe for the complete subordination of each working class to its own capitalist state and capitalist class in their competition with every other.

Socialists should neither support or defend the invasion by Russia of Ukraine but we do not take sides between capitalist powers, between the oligarchs of Russia and the oligarchs of Ukraine, between the offshore wealth of Zelensky and hidden millions of Putin, between the army of Russia and the army of Ukraine (with its fascist units and its NATO arms).

Self-determination by Ukrainian workers, for whom we are in solidarity, can only come through unity with workers in Russia and the rest of Europe.  The desire if its leaders to join NATO has helped precipitate the invasion.  Joining it would subordinate Ukraine to the requirements of US imperialism, which will continue to employ NATO to contain and weaken Russia and to constrain the demands of its main rival China.  This is not the future that Ukrainian workers should seek or British workers support through arming the Ukrainian state.  

The weakness of the Ukrainian working class is being exploited by both its own rulers and the Western powers. It is a result of internal divisions, which are exploited by its oligarchs and political leaders, and its geopolitical position.  Overcoming this division and outside threats will not be achieved by defending the rights of the Ukrainian capitalist state or effective capitulation to the strongest external power.

Its immediate vulnerability can mainly be addressed by workers in the Ukraine itself, in so far as it is able to assert its separate class interests.  Surrendering it to the political leadership that walked them into this nightmare and the NATO predator that presents itself as their saviour is politically fatal.  Workers outside the country can show their common class interests through material support; opposition to the war – especially in Russia – and others’ solidarity with it; and political solidarity based on clear assertion of international working class unity.

See also:

The Russian invasion of Ukraine

The War in Ukraine and the Left

The War in Ukraine and the Left

Russians in St Petersburg protest against the war in Ukraine

An article in the British web site ‘Anti-capitalist Resistance’ has an analysis of the British Left’s view of the war in Ukraine.  It reminds me of the old Irish response when asked for directions to a particular destination – if I wanted to get there I wouldn’t start from here.

So, if I wanted to determine the socialist position on the war, I wouldn’t start by saying you have to take sides between Ukraine and Russia.  In all circumstances socialists look after the immediate aims of the working class movement but look after and take care of its future.  The immediate aims involve identifying the interests of the working class – the whole working class, not any particular section and not any particular nationality.

It is not therefore the supposed interests of the Ukrainian working class or Russian working class but the working class of the world that is paramount.  It’s why the socialist war cry is ‘Workers of the World Unite.’ ‘Taking sides’ means taking sides in the class war and the first step is recognising that the ‘two sides’ we have been invited to choose from by ‘Anti-capitalist Resistance’ are conglomerates of classes with conflicting interests, and we would betray the interests of the working class by pretending that right now their particular interests don’t count, which is what this article requires.

The independence of the working class and its unity are the watchwords of socialist politics without which we become liberals.  This may be put differently, as Lenin did, by saying that we are in favour of the self-determination of the working class.

Instead, the article demands that we respect self-determination of Ukraine as ‘obvious’ but not that of the Donbass and Crimea.  The borders of this particular capitalist state are now apparently sacrosanct despite its history.  This is one problem of the demand for self-determination of nations – to whom does it apply when there are conflicting national claims?

As the article demonstrates, it often involves picking the primacy of one capitalist state over another, in other words supporting and fighting for one capitalist state and its capitalist class instead of another; in this case one group of oligarchs over another.

This is the very definition of surrendering the interests of the  working class.  Gone is any appeal to class interests, instead we are asked to believe in the progressive character of one capitalist state while its resistance contains a significant presence of far-right forces.

It is argued that “Russia attacked Ukraine. NATO did not invade Russia and nor did Ukraine” as if we are supposed to believe that the war came out of nowhere or could have had no cause that did not exclusively involve Russian aggression.

Who shoots first determines a war’s class character?  Many states have gone to war claiming that the other side engaged in some attack, often a pure invention, but never has it been the case that socialists should either accept their word for it or offer their support even if they were told the truth. 

It is argued that ‘Ukraine is facing one of the three most powerful imperialist powers . . . and is a much weaker country;’ as if we should support small capitalist powers against larger ones.  Do we then support small capitalists against large monopolies, like the Stalinists used to argue?  Do we support ‘native’ capital against foreign multinationals?  And since Ukraine has the support of NATO this argument doesn’t even hold up very much anyway. 

It is argued that although Ukrainians might know that ‘Zelensky’s government has [not] been any sort of progressive regime . . . at least they know they can vote the guy out.’  Again we are to accept that the class character of the state has no bearing on whether socialists should defend it – just as long as it has a bourgeois democratic government like . . .  France or Germany or Britain or the US? 

The history of the US intervening in elections, including Russian ones, is forgotten. But Zelensky can be voted out?  Can the Ukrainian oligarchs be voted out, can the Ukrainian state be overthrown by voting, can its capitalist state be overthrown by voting?  Will Ukraine’s subordination to the US through NATO be the achievement of real self-determination and democracy?

That self-determination of Ukraine will mean the expansion of NATO through Ukrainian membership, and so expansion of the power of US imperialism, exposes the bourgeois nature of the demand for the right of nations to self-determination.  It is not a socialist demand.  When it is therefore described as a bourgeois demand this has a particular meaning: it does not go beyond capitalism and must therefore be completely subordinated to the political interests of the working class. In these circumstances making it absolute makes your politics absolutely bourgeois. 

It is argued that there is one Immediate question and everything else is ‘later’.  We even get this from socialists who live in London for example, 1,500 miles from Kyiv, but who instinctively realise that this is really not the case so have deployed the arguments in the article to cover their nakedness.

‘Sure, NATO can be blamed to some point in time, but when the bombs start falling from the sky – only Russia can be blamed for bombing,’ which appears to mean that all political issues and responsibility for the war can be reduced to where particular bombs, suffered by one ‘side’, are falling.

We do not even get the justification, which is irrelevant to this particular Left’s argument, of a call for a separate working class resistance – on the basis that the Ukrainian working class has the right to physically and politically defend itself. We are, after all, not the slightest bit interested in the right of self-defence for oligarchs etc.

But to do this would require a political programme to win Ukrainian workers away from their current leaders and find a basis for possible unity with Russian workers – and this goes way beyond opposing the bombs.  Yet all we get is the vague and mealy-mouthed statement that it ‘does not mean you give up the class struggle in Ukraine but it does mean you fight against getting a worse regime foisted on you.’

The article quotes a Ukrainian that ‘A friend told me that it is also NATO’s guilt and after everything will be over we will have a very nationalist, xenophobic country and other problems. So I answered him: Sure, we probably will, but I will think about it later when there will be no shelling of cities and when there will be no Russian army here. Now we cannot solve these problems.’

Except if you are that weak you will not solve the problem of the Russian invasion by your actions either.  And if your actions are to advance your cause then clearly you want to advance your arguments now.

But at least this Ukrainian has no illusions in the outcome unlike the British author, who would have us believe that ‘A victory for the Ukrainian resistance, far from being reactionary, could lead to positive changes both in Ukraine, in Russia and across Eastern Europe.’

What is involved here is a capitulation to one’s own ruling class, in this case the British state, which is a significant member of NATO.  The article endorses the demands – ‘Russian Troops Out Now and No To War’ and seems to endorse that ‘pro-NATO politicians spoke from STW [Stop the War’] platforms during the Iraq war.’

Of course, this makes sense, inter alia, only if you think NATO bears no responsibility for the war itself; no responsibility for the bombs etc.  In which case the criticism of Labour Party leader Keir Starmer in the article is pretty pitiful and there is really no reason why he can’t join their ‘anti-war’ movement.

This capitulation is evidenced in another respect.  The article strangles itself over support for sanctions against Russia.  It supports them and expects that Russian workers will forgive them – ‘The existence of a very brave anti-war movement on the streets in Russia will hopefully make a nationalist pro-Putin boost less likely as a result of sanctions.’  These brave Russians are actually being told that they are on their own.

The article says that ‘Sanctions against Russia should hit its oligarchs and Putin’s war machine, not its populations’ but then says ‘In reality it will be difficult to shield Russian workers from all the effects of sanctions but any discomfort they suffer has to be balanced against the way such sanctions may shorten the war and the killings of Ukrainians.’  Of course, the sanctions are coupled with support for arms to the Ukrainian state, which will purchase its own killings, this time of Russian conscripts.  But again, the brave Russians will understand even if the effect on them is belittled and insulting – ‘not being able to buy the latest smart phone with your Visa card has to be put against a family dying in an apartment block.’

In fact, ‘Russian workers’ will quickly understand that they will be most affected by sanctions and that this is their purpose: to put pressure on the Putin regime through their impact on the lives of ordinary citizens.  It is what sanctions are for.  They are not an alternative to war, they are part of it.  If war is the continuation of politics by other means sanctions are the result of political action to make economic measures the continuation of war.

One little argument demonstrates the nature of such sanctions, that they are in fact an attack on the Russian people because they are Russian, not because they support or otherwise advance the war in Ukraine.

The article states that ‘Putin’s regime lays great store in cultural and sporting soft power. A boycott helps weaken this. It sends a message to the world that you cannot just sit there and see a state sponsored ballet company perform blithely unaware of Russian bombs falling on Kharkiv.’

So what contribution do Russian ballet dancers make to the war?  In what way are they responsible for it?  In what way are Russian paralympians, subject to banning from the Winter Olympics, responsible for the war?  How have they contributed to it?  What possible role does their ‘soft power’ have?  Why have they been sanctioned?  The only possible reason is simply because they are Russian.  Yet the article disavows any ‘Russia phobia’!

We thus see in the most petty way what ‘taking sides’ means.  Not only is any class analysis abandoned, but so is any remotely sensible allocation of responsibility for the war.  The capitulation to one side of this capitalist war has revealed its socialist cheer leaders to have emulated their liberal allies, who defend human rights except when they are under attack.  So our brave anti-capitalists defend socialist internationalism except when capitalism goes to war.

The absence of any role for class in their analysis should give these ‘anti-capitalists’ pause for thought.  When it can only come as an optional decoration you have not only started your journey from the wrong place, you’ve arrived at the wrong destination.

Previous statement

Covid, Brexit, Protest, and the Left too

A couple of months ago in a Facebook discussion with a supporter of Zero Covid I argued that if he really did believe that Covid-19 represented the threat to humanity that he appeared to claim he should demand (albeit critically) more coercive restrictions on democratic rights from the State.  Nothing, after all, is more important than life.

He disagreed, insisting that socialists can never support restrictions on democratic rights by the capitalist state.

Unfortunately the proponents of Zero-Covid supported all the previous restrictions and if they are to be consistent then these new restrictions must also be an unfortunate necessity.  All the rest of the Zero-Covid demands have been made to the state and who else is going to implement them?  Again, it was they who have been hysterical in their claims that capitalism was engaged in what amounts to mass murder.

Of course, Covid-19 did not and does not represent the existential threat claimed and much of the left is wrong about this.  Their position becomes more and more untenable as people appreciate the personal threat to themselves, they tire of lockdown restrictions and more people, especially the vulnerable, get vaccinated.  Were it to become clear that Covid-19 is endemic and therefore requires regular vaccination, as with the flu, their policy would become obviously stupid.

So it should only be embarrassing that they now condemn the rough tactics adopted by the Metropolitan police when it broke up the protest of the murder of Sarah Everard.  To be consistent they should have defended the policy of the police while salving their conscience by condemning the roughness of its implementation.

Of course, the Tories have taken advantage of the widespread acceptance of restrictions of social interaction by proposing to introduce new laws that go a long way to criminalising protest altogether, as should have been feared from the start.  I recently posted another comment on Facebook pointing this out and suggesting that those who didn’t see this coming should avoid politics and find something else to do.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is to engage in ‘parliamentary warfare’ over NHS pay while forgetting that austerity would be worse had the Tories implemented the greater lockdown restrictions demanded by Labour.  The cost would have been even greater had the Zero-Covid policy of some on the left been adopted; a policy that is the product of an opportunist attempt to attack the Tories but like all opportunism is incapable of taking a longer-term view.

It is no defence of this policy to declare that you also have a policy against austerity; one which makes heroic assumptions about the capacity of the working class to resist it.  Opportunism here is accompanied by ultra-left perspectives that envisages the capitalist class paying hundreds of millions of pounds for furlough payments, loans and grants to business and the shortage of tax receipts from workers etc.

Again, the Tories will claim the legitimacy of the bill to be paid and the left will again be exposed as it argued a policy that would have needlessly cost more. The policy of Zero-Covid simultaneously relies on the repressive apparatus of the state to work, while positing that this state can be defeated in the implementation of austerity that the policy requires.

We will leave aside any stupid notion that the combination of pandemic and austerity will somehow galvanise the working class to revolution; although these conceptions are precisely how much of the left envisages socialist revolution coming about – capitalist crisis producing a mass political consciousness that their political conceptions and interventions are incapable of envisaging coming about in any other way.

Despite their serial corruption and incompetence in most of their response to the pandemic the Tories are ahead in the polls.  Their bedrock support has relied, and continues to rely, upon their support for Brexit.  The pandemic has been used to hide the damage done by it and the Labour Party has been too afraid and too stupid to lead a political attack on it.

The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee can write that “Labour will plug away, exposing myriad flaws in the dreadful trade deal” but this is meaningless if you don’t oppose it.  It looks hypocritical, since Labour supported the deal, and it looks like the dishonesty typical of politicians given Starmer’s avoidance of even mentioning the word, refusal to seek renegotiation of the deal, and previous policy of pushing the Tories to ‘get Brexit done‘.

But once again, while Labour fails, much of the left is actually worse, having supported Brexit from the start and campaigned for it in the referendum.  The damage to working class living standards and the austerity it will entail is on them.  They too, just like the Tories, are relying on Covid and the Tory press to hide Brexit’s damaging effects and just like Boris Johnson they will – child-like – deny any responsibility.

Two alternative narratives have developed – the fault is with Brexit or the fault is with the big bad EU.  The left that thought it could move on will be cut in two by these scissors but there is little chance that it will fess up and admit a mistake.  As a rule the left does not admit mistakes and certainly not ones as big as this, especially as they cannot consign it to history.

A few years ago a comrade on the left from the Official Republican tradition said to me, while we were watching the May Day parade in Belfast, that so much of the left was rotten that it basically had to die away before a new generation of socialists could make progress. He may even have included his own tradition in that, and in my view this should certainly be the case, but it isn’t as simple as that.  The corruption of Marxism perpetrated by the nationalist and statist left both in Ireland and Britain will not be easily cleansed.

In the meantime, you can hardly blame the British working class if it ignores much of the left, it is quite right to do so.

A year of Covid-19 (1) – following ‘the science’

On 20 April last year the lead story in ‘The Irish Times’ was a report of research led by an Irish scientist that there may have to be repeated waves of Covid-19 epidemics until enough of the population is infected to provide herd immunity.  At best there would be three more infection cycles before 60 per cent was infected, enough for immunity.

It reported intense debate on the subject, with World Health Organisation epidemiologists warning that there was no proof yet that having the infection would confer immunity for a significant period of time.  Later, when it was apparent that immunity did occur, the response was that the level of antibodies recorded in previously infected cases declined more or less rapidly so that immunity would also decline.  This however did not take account of the body’s reduced need for higher levels and its newly acquired capacity to ramp up again if required; it also did not take account of the role of T-cells in fighting infection.

The point however, is that herd immunity was not dismissed as beyond the pale and was not considered a euphemism for mass murder.  In fact, as the link to the debate below records, herd immunity is not so much a strategy as an outcome, the inevitable outcome of defeating the pandemic.  That it has been understood as anything else illustrates the impairment of critical thought that has accompanied the physical restrictions introduced by lockdown.

Throughout the pandemic, governments in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere have been keen to demand that people follow ‘the science’ (as they put it), backed up by certain scientists or doctors, usually on the state payroll, who have given authority to government policy even when it is sometimes reported that they don’t agree with it.

The appeal to authority, the idea that there is one ‘science’ with one rational direction available to policy makers, the unwillingness to debate, and repeated charges of lack of transparency; all these are very far from any scientific approach.  The debate here on what the correct approach should be is an example of what has not been presented to populations.  The effects of this have been many and not always acknowledged.

I recently had a disagreement on Facebook with a supporter of a ‘Zero-Covid’ strategy, who refused to accept our differences were political, claiming that there was a psychological issue involved with my approach (along with some other remarks I have committed to amnesia).  The alternative that I argued, of focused protection of the vulnerable and opposition to generalised lockdown, was not received as a legitimate one to be considered, but simply one to be condemned and damned as so mistaken as to be the product of some psychological imperfection.

What was remarkable was that the principal issue facing the world was argued as something above, beyond or otherwise disassociated from politics.  Marxists, and this guy is one of long standing, are supposed to base their ideas on the reality that science, morality and all aspects of human behaviour are permeated with politics.  Science has its political aspects and the actions of the Government and state obviously does, especially when they involve drastic restrictions on human activity.

So, to regard Covid-19 as a non-political issue is absurd.  That such an argument could arise on social media is not at all surprising since everything under the sun appears on it.  In this case however the response is not uncommon, and is a mirror reflection of the approach taken by almost all Governments, which is to deny legitimacy to any questioning of their policies.  We can see this clearly for example in the pathetic ‘opposition’ of Keir Starmer, whose only point of disagreement is that the lockdown policy of the Government has been implemented incompetently and incompletely.

The policy of inducing fear into the population is ably assisted by a willing media seeking the simple and the sensational, through stressing the lethal nature of the virus; repetition of statistics on cases, hospitalisation numbers and patients in intensive care; the numbers with ‘long-Covid’; the prominence given to sufferers among the young, and of course the rising number of deaths.

This goes along with a determined policy of down-playing the specificity of those most under threat, and claims that the virus is either out of control or will utterly swamp the health service.  The fear generated has enough truth behind it to get acceptance of actions that would in normal times have generated heated opposition; including cancelled urgent cancer operations and a policy of isolation of individuals that admits that increased domestic abuse and enormous deterioration in mental health will follow.  The cumulative effect in generating fear is to dampen and discourage further the exercise of people’s critical faculties.

Instead of opposing all this, much of the left has echoed it and amplified it, as my minor Facebook argument illustrated.  This Left demands stricter and longer lockdowns and ‘zero-Covid’, i.e. no cases and no deaths from Covid.  To state that there is an alternative approach to generalised lockdown, and admit that some deaths will almost certainly result, is to damn oneself out of one’s own mouth.  How dare you advocate a policy that accepts any deaths!

We will, for the moment, leave aside the obvious truth that the current lockdown policy has abysmally failed to prevent avoidable deaths, and that the ‘Zero-Covid’ policy has yet to indicate what injury and deaths would flow from its implementation.  It has failed to admit that it would have to be enforced; that the state would have to do the enforcing and that it would have to apply much enhanced powers of coercion to attempt to achieve it.  An additional result would be to limit further the space for open debate on different approaches and alternative futures following the pandemic.

The policy of the Left has not been to encourage scientific debate but to back one element of the consensus view that lockdowns are the answer.  The problem here is that there has been far from a free debate on what the best approach to dealing with Covid-19 is and not, as the left would have it, a refusal to follow through on what is so obviously the right, or rather only, one.

These two articles, here and here, show that there is no single and unequivocal scientific approach that supports lockdown.  Rather, there is an intensely political debate within the scientific community that has suffered from, but resisted, restrictions on discussion.  The result of the attempt to impose a single approach has been the development of what has been called ‘groupthink’, censorship and self-censorship and something of a climate of fear, in which critical thought is seen as criticism of the scientific establishment, which might be damaging to the careers of those who engage in it.

The inevitable uncertainties generated by a new viral infection requires engagement with the issues that the political establishment does not believe the population can handle, something the media reinforces with its superficial treatment of every issue.  The mechanisms and apparatus that circumscribes political argument has been easily employed to narrow debate on the right approach to dealing with the pandemic.  The idea that the issues around it are non-political is, to repeat, ludicrous.

This political debate has been grossly distorted by an anti-scientific assault by the far-right, typified by the often-imbecilic antics of Donald Trump, with his alternative denial of the virus, its importance, his success in dealing with it, and his recommendation about drinking bleach.  The mass base of scientific ignorance he mobilised in the US has been reflected everywhere to a greater or lesser extent.  The effect on rational criticism of the prevalent lockdown approach has been to prejudice reception of it and create a barrier to its discussion.  Sections of the left have joined in, unwittingly contributing to the anti-scientific shut-down of rational debate.  As with so many issues, the opposition to lockdown by sections of the right, whether of the crazed anti-vaxxers or libertarian conservatives, has been the cue for some on the left to take an opposing view.

We are over a year into the pandemic, about a year since it hit Europe, and there is no excuse for lack of debate on how to deal with it. Only episodically has one taken place in Ireland and like everywhere else, any alternative to lockdown has been subject to condemnation. It has had its own share of far-right sceptics that have made the task of challenging the lockdown consensus harder; but the fact is that the policy of lockdown has failed, and the experience of the last year has proved it, which is what we will review in the next post.

Forward to part 2

Is learning from Brexit possible?

Last week the ‘Financial Times‘ revealed that the Tory Government is working with big business on plans to tear up those workers’ rights enshrined in EU law.  This would include ending the 48-hour limit on the working week; changing rules on work breaks and ending the inclusion of overtime pay in holiday entitlements.  This is the list reported but there are undoubtedly others.

That this was one purpose of Brexit and its likely effect was both predictable and predicted, it comes as a surprise to no one.  Yet large swathes of the Left in Ireland and Britain supported it, although much less vocally in Ireland because it is so unpopular.  In any case their support for it has assisted putting in place these projected attacks and is indefensible and inexcusable.

An analysis of why they took such a position would have to look at such things as an originally opportunist position becoming hard-wired into their politics; their nationalist perspective arising from the view that the nation state will introduce socialism and come to embody it; general simple-minded opposition to the EU on the shallow grounds that it is a creature of capitalism, and the strong tendency to have a more concrete idea of what you are against than what you are for.  There’s also a large dose of ignorance and stupidity involved.

The significant role of stupidity first hit me when I read that left supporters of Brexit were complaining that the negotiations on the British side were being conducted by the Tories.  Further examples became clear when they, like the rest of the Brexit movement, demanded a harder Brexit as the only one worthy of the name, and for the same reason – there was no point otherwise.

Now that even a blind man can see what the future invites, what are the chances that this left will reconsider its support for Brexit and the political approach that led to it?  What might this involve?

Well, much of this left also supports Scottish nationalism, which perhaps should be no surprise since this too involves an obviously nationalist project that harbours illusions in a separate capitalist state.

In the weekend’s ‘Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole has a long article on Scottish nationalism that is quite good.  It notes that in 1979 the referendum on devolution and creation of a new Scottish parliament couldn’t even get 40 per cent of the Scottish electorate to support it.  Now opinion polls show majority support for independence.  O’Toole looks for reasons for the change.

The first is the decline of the Empire that Scots played such a prominent and profitable role in creating, before it shrunk to the extent that many middle class Scots saw potential for better career opportunities in a separate state.  Some on the Left present this opportunist turn as some sort of anti-imperialism.  That some Irish accept this is where another heavy dose of stupidity comes in, although again, a common nationalist outlook is a more adequate political explanation.

The second reason is the growth of the idea that Scotland is more progressive than England (Wales hardly ever gets a mention), an idea O’Toole correctly describes as a ‘myth’.  This is traced to the idea that Thatcher and her policies came to be seen as an imposition on the country from outside rather than as a class-based assault on the whole British working class.

This isn’t really an explanation, more an outcome – why did Thatcherism come to be seen as a rallying cry for Scottish nationalism and not British working class struggle?  The venom of nationalism is now so prevalent in the bloodstream that even when English and Welsh workers try to move to the left, through the Jeremy Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, the Scottish left prefers its own nationalism and opposes it.

O’Toole notes the mass opposition of 70,000 Celtic and Dundee United fans during Thatcher’s attendance at the Scottish cup final in 1988.  Many Celtic fans, traditionally a base of support for the Labour Party, are now ardent nationalists.  Again, their existing (partial) identity with Irish nationalism assisted the switch, although with just as little justification.

O’Toole notes that the Scottish National Party tacked to the left in order to garner support from those opposed to Thatcherism, but Scottish nationalism is not a complement to Celtic supporters’ residual Irish identity but a dilution of it, if not a rival.  Recent criticism by the SNP government of the actions of Celtic Football club and praise for Rangers may mainly be a piece of opportunist tacking to a part of the electorate it hasn’t had success with, but it is also politically consistent with any idea of Scottish nationalism.

What O’Toole doesn’t cover is the employment of constitutional solutions by the Labour Party to cover up for its hostility to a militant class opposition to Thatcherism.  Ultimately this played into the hands of the more aggressive nationalists, but then the Scottish Labour Party was even more venal and rotten than the rest of the party.

The third reason advanced by O’Toole is that Scottish nationalism is very much bolstered by the rise of English nationalism.  How else, for example, can you account for the popularity of the SNP Government’s handling of Covid-19 as opposed to widespread criticism of the Tories?  Objectively, the differences are much less than the similarities and both have a very poor record in terms of deaths, making the same mistake of seeding care homes with infected discharges from hospitals.

The Tories have repeatedly used the rise of Scottish nationalism to attack the Labour Party, which plays very well for the SNP. It can hardly be a surprise that nationalist division encourages divisive nationalism.  Yet this too seems to have escaped much of the British left, which supports Scottish nationalism but deplores English nationalism, except for the most degenerate Stalinist section that is now buying into it.

Why do they not get that the former has helped the latter?  Why do those who did oppose Brexit not see the parallels with Scottish nationalism, both movements championing the magical powers of ‘national sovereignty’?  Did they really miss the absence of a Scottish component of the Corbyn movement, the potential base of which had already been partially vaccinated against left politics by nationalism?  Do they really think that the left of the nationalist movement in Scotland was the equivalent of the Corbyn movement in the rest of Britain; ignoring the project of the supporters of Corbyn being to move the Labour Party to the left while the most distinguishing mark of the left supporters of Scottish nationalism is the militancy of their nationalism?  Do they also have to actually witness its full reactionary effects before they discover that nationalism really is not the friend of the working class?

An analysis of why these socialist have taken such a position would have to look at such things as an originally opportunist (but successful looking and therefore trendy) position becoming hard-wired into their politics; their lapse into a statist conception of socialism and mistaken assumption that national separation is the default democratic position of socialists; general simple-minded opposition to the UK on the shallow grounds that it is a creature of capitalism, and the strong tendency to have a more concrete idea of what you are for when it doesn’t actually entail any element of socialism.  Not to mention that dose of simple stupidity.

If the Left that supported Brexit had any idea what mistake it had made in supporting leaving the EU it would be revising its support for nationalism of the Scottish variety.  It would even wonder whether any newly gained national sovereignty for Scotland might unleash demands for workers sacrifice for the newly won ‘independent’ Scotland in the same way the Tories seek to make Britain competitive against the EU.

Of course, it can be argued that Scotland voted against Brexit and a separated Scotland will seek to join the EU; although this is not an argument open to supporters of Brexit.  But even in this case, the point is not that the EU is something in itself that socialists should support, rather it is to be accepted as an exemplar of the progressive development of capitalism, which to the extent that it is progress is also progress towards socialism, as it increases the international socialisation of the forces and relations of production.

The point is that this internationalisation of capitalism, that by this fact brings forward the grounds for socialism, only does so because it strengthens the potential unity of the working class across nations.  It is exactly this unity that Scottish nationalism opposes and destroys.

We have seen this above; through its arising upon the bones of the defeated British working class movement under Thatcherism, and its opposition to workers seeking to mobilise to the left under Corbyn: its opposition to spreading this movement and assistance to those also opposed to it in the rest of Britain.

There is very little indication that the Brexit supporting left has learnt any lessons.  Although it may be viewed as early days, it is a sign you aren’t stupid when you can see the policeman’s truncheon falling and you decide not to put your head in the way, rather than wait until it cracks your skull, whereupon you declare the need to defend yourself against police brutality.

The Left and Covid crisis

The policy of lockdowns has been approved by many on the left, with the additional argument that they have not been strict enough.  Some appear to believe that pandemic induced crises necessarily open up opportunities for revolutionary crises.  These are considered opportunities to mobilise the working class to resist attacks on its social position and turn it towards socialism.  Crises then become both the necessary and sufficient condition for political revolution.  What these sufficient and necessary conditions might actually be is not considered.  That question has been answered and is no longer a question.

Previous crises have not entailed socialist revolution, but rather than investigate why this is, the approach has been to lament the weakness of the revolutionary left and the treacherousness of existing working class leaders.  Crises therefore are expected to do much of the heavy lifting of working-class political consciousness, allied to an unexplained rise to prominence of revolutionary organisations.  Rather than see such crises as occasions of potential radicalisation which must be based on prior conditions giving rise to class consciousness, this consciousness is assumed to arise from crises itself and the spontaneous activity generated.  This latter activity is then fed by Left economic and political demands that further radicalises it.

This process however requires prior development of the working class, including organisation and consciousness which already disposes the working class to defend itself through ‘spontaneous’ mobilisation that rests on some prior socialist consciousness.  We know that a lack of such consciousness has not been overcome by crisis in itself because of previous decades of defeats of working-class struggle; from a sober assessment of current working-class consciousness and passivity, and from appreciation that the last real revolutionary period rested on this prior development of socialist organisation.  Of course, many struggles in this period were betrayed by reformist and Stalinist leaderships but these betrayals had precisely the effect of setting the working-class back decades.  It’s why continuing opposition to these political trends in the working-class movement is a continuing imperative.  But it is wrong to simply repeat the explanations of previous defeats that happened decades ago as applicable now to much later generations.

In demanding a more stringent lockdown the purveyors of this general view rally behind the most lurid and sensational predictions of the effects and deaths that will be caused by Covid. The pandemic itself has become a ruling class conspiracy – “as far as the ruling elite is concerned, if the old and infirm die and allow for further cuts to pensions and health care, that is to be regarded as a positive good.”  As has been pointed out: across the world capitalist governments have spent fortunes in response to the pandemic.  If their objective has been to save money they have failed abysmally. In Ireland and UK the state has borrowed billions and seen their debt mushroom as a result.

If their favoured policy of total lockdown requires emulation of the approach of China, Australia and New Zealand etc., as some have claimed, then why are these countries not also in on the conspiracy?

This left appears oblivious to the cost of lockdown in terms of deaths, illness and social and economic loss; and sliding over who suffers these costs: from the lost jobs, education, domestic violence and damage to menial health.  It may point to the massive and wasted expenditures on testing and tracing systems that don’t work, and from failed and corrupt contract awards for PPE etc., but what has facilitated this?

They don’t stop to consider how their approach supports the politicians and state bureaucrats who cancel cancer and other life-saving treatments in order to protect their politicised health choices, and a health system that is failing and for which these politicians and bureaucrats bear responsibility.  Instead, their demand for lockdown puts the onus on the population to accept the most restrictive forms of social control and denial of civil rights, opposition to which is another one of their conspicuous silences.

Instead they oppose the opening of schools, though children are not at significant risk and infections in schools are low (see here and here and here).   One organisation dismisses schools as a “child-minding service’ employed to force parents into work, oblivious to this being a service that many parents are very glad of. It complains of trillions going to corporations but ignores that this is a product of lockdown; or do they believe that the state would give money to furloughed workers and not corporations?  What would happen if they didn’t, would all these corporations survive?

This organisation proposes committees that “would provide the means to organize a Europe-wide general strike to compel the closure of schools and nonessential production and allow workers to shelter at home.”  A stay away from work in order to get paid to stay away from work!  Since when did the capitalist class pay for an indefinite general strike? And how would one be organised with the mass of workers at home and socially distancing?  How would any revolutionary potential of a general strike be realised, i.e. acknowledging that society cannot simply close down but must continue to run, raising the question of who runs the economy – who rules?  How would this be possible unless major sections of the working class were actually at work?

“Massive resources must be invested to provide a high standard of living to everyone throughout the pandemic, including the resources required to maintain online learning for students.”  But how could anything be invested if the workers required to deliver the investment are to stay at home?  Or is this yet another essential section of the working class that must work – like so many the total-lockdown supporters refuse to acknowledge.

“The claim that there is “no money” for such measures is a patent lie. Trillions of euros have been handed to the banks and corporations in bailouts since the beginning of the pandemic. The resources exist, but they are monopolized by a corporate and financial oligarchy.”  The utterly un-Marxist idea is again advanced that money can equal “resources” and that pieces of paper are of use without human labour to deliver the real goods and services for which they are exchanged.  And anyway, isn’t the monopolisation of productive resources by a separate class not called capitalism?

Indeed it is, which once again demonstrates that every intervention by the ultra-left telescopes into demanding the overthrow of capitalism.

“The fortunes of the rich must be expropriated and the major corporations transformed into public utilities, democratically controlled by the working class as part of the socialist reorganization of economic life on the basis of social need, not private profit.”  But how are “the major corporations” to be put under the control of the workers unless they are actually at work?

As we know, Covid-19 is a specific threat that must be defended against.  When advocates of total lockdown call young people having a party ‘granny killers’ they acknowledge this reality.  Yet the pretence is still made that everyone is equally threatened at least to such degree that no strategy must distinguish between those who are old and/or otherwise vulnerable and those who are relatively young and healthy.  Students must go home, schools must close and young people socialising is an existential threat.

What this does is weaken the protection of those most at risk because it calls into question any restrictions.  If there really was no significant differential impact then many thousands of young people would have died. They haven’t.  Many working class people, as I have noted in previous posts, and here in a previous comment by a reader, are ignoring the rules when it suits.  The left advocates of complete lockdown are really now following Bertolt Brecht when he said – should this left not just elect a new people?

Most people however do register the greater threat to older and vulnerable people but rather than this being informed, encouraged and organised it has more or less been ignored by the authorities when it comes to organisation of the response.  Tightening restrictions affects everyone, and in some ways young people more, and undifferentiated relaxation exposes older people more because it cannot be admitted that they should still be shielded or socially distanced; just in case everyone decides that is the way it should stay, that this is the correct approach that should now be implemented and those in charge have got it wrong.

This approach has failed in Ireland, Britain and across Europe and further afield.  Part of the left doubles down and says the lockdown is not tough enough, without weighing up the cost or admitting that total lockdown has never actually been implemented because it can’t.  You cannot close down society, which relies on the continuous labour of millions of workers.  Admission that ‘essential’ work must continue never admits the enormous extent of what this entails given the development of the forces of production and division of labour involved.

A blanket threat in many ways protects the authorities from blame for failure because Covid-19 becomes an all-embracing indiscriminate threat that is difficult to defend against because of this character.  It allows them to introduce harsh social restrictions and coercive powers that for most people are totally unnecessary, and which some on the left who, were they consistent, should support because (1) they should endorse a fair claim to be necessary and (2) totally warranted given the assumed threat.  What could be more important that saving lives?

The longer the pandemic lasts the more incredible become the demands for total lockdown and ‘zero-Covid’.  The failure of existing restrictions has been too great to inspire notions that just more of the same will be both successful and at an acceptable cost.  Given the attacks stored up for the future, there will be plenty of time to reflect on the lessons.

Civil Rights and Socialist strategy 4 – the failure of the Left

 

In looking back at the civil rights movement Eamonn McCann argued that “the left had a lot of influence in the early days of the civil rights movement. We frittered it away. No question of that. We frittered it away. We have to learn lessons from that and look back.”  In doing this on the fortieth anniversary of 1968 he wrote that “in the long run, we didn’t punch our weight.”

McCann also noted the weakness of republicanism in Derry in the 1960s, which won less than 3,000 votes in a constituency with more than 25,000 Catholics in 1966, while in West Belfast IRA leader Billy McMillen came fourth out of four with just 6.3 per cent of the vote in 1964.

However, McCann also made the point that the radicals of around twenty to thirty in Derry were weak – a “relatively small, raggedy band of socialists”; “no sizeable socialist party was built from the experience, no distinctive socialist current emerged”. “What was needed . . . were clear ideas and coherent organisation, which wasn’t our strong suit.”

He complained that it was difficult to engage in political debate within the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee, with anyone raising class politics denounced as splitting the all-class unity of the Committee.  He remarked on the radicals “blithe disregard for organisation and structure, because we had underestimated the depth of the sectarian division and the hold of nationalism on the Catholic community, because we had not been engaged in building a serious socialist party.”

McCann states that there was no clarification of differences, with “little serious effort to draw a line of demarcation with nationalism.’  This was especially needed in 1969 as the anger of youth flowed “through unimpeded among nationalist channels, eventually, into the IRA.”

He noted the way barricades were thrown across the entrance to Catholic areas, which he saw as confirming sectarian division, and the absence of the organised workers’ movement from the civil rights struggle.  In relation to the latter “we were too far out in front. [We] had lost contact with the main formation of the class and the only institution in the North which organised across the sectarian divide, the union movement, in which we might have grounded ourselves, or cleared ground for a new departure.”

McCann does record that in the 1969 Stormont election Peoples Democracy “was able to address mainly-Protestant workforces, emphasising the class basis of its hostility to unionism . . . but given the spontaneous nature of the socialists’ main organisational expression – the PD – and the absence of clear-cut ideas, the militancy came across as much as a reflection of gut opposition to the Northern state as of conscious adherence to socialist politics.”

He quotes Bernadette Devlin, after she won a by-election to become a Westminster MP –“there may not be 30,000 socialists in this constituency, but it has a socialist MP.”  As he also records, “events had been rushing forward, pell-mell, helter-skelter, at a pace never previously experienced in stultified Northern Ireland, hurtling, as we thought, towards a possibly imminent resolution.  It was vital not to be left behind.  So no time to stop, analyse, synthesise.  In the blur of activity, we missed the moment.”

“This is not to say that if we had all been hardened revolutionaries with clear ideas, working patiently, efficiently to build a revolutionary socialist party, things would have worked out very differently”, acknowledging the historical weight of communal rather than class allegiance and the failure of the official labour movement.  His “realistic possibility” was one of “recruiting relatively rapidly from angry, urgent working class youth” and “entering 1969 not as a hubbub of socialist individuals but as a serious socialist organisation, capable of taking on and competing for popular support. . .” (all quotes from ‘Socialism and 1968’, in ‘Spirit of ’68’ edited Pauline McClenaghan)

If we review this argument, we can see that it isn’t altogether consistent.  It is argued that the left did not punch its weight but began the struggle as a “small, raggedy band”.  Before civil rights agitation took off the group was presented with a perspectives document that acknowledged their poor prospects, with the great mass of people seeing “religion, not class, as the basic divide in our society.”

Elsewhere he notes that although the left played a prominent role in organising marches; putting out leaflets and bulletins; running a radio station and in standing as candidates in  elections, that during their speeches “when the people were applauding [it] was not so much what we said but the way we said it.”  He notes correctly that prominent involvement in mass agitation did not mean that they had real political leadership or, as Bernadette Devlin put it – she was a socialist MP but not elected by socialist constituents.

McCann argues in his book ‘War and an Irish Town’ that mass influence is meaningless “unless one is in the process of forging a political instrument necessary to lead such agitation to victory . . .” and “we have learned that it is impossible to do that if one is not forearmed with a coherent class analysis of the situation and a clear programme based on it.”

Both of these are claims are true but his later assessment that things might not have worked out very differently had this been the case – and it can be argued that socialists at the time did argue vociferously for a socialist approach – nevertheless is also true.  These two requirements posed by McCann were not enough and their absence itself needs explanation, not simply in terms of the failures of individuals involved.

Perhaps they could have done better, as we can all have done better in our political careers, but this does not make our failure to do things as best they could be done the cause of wider failure by the movement or the class.  The point of this series of posts has been to understand what happened in order to do better now, but what happened was the outcome of forces much stronger than the left input into these events.

The left perspective document in 1968 quoted by McCann was not wrong to note the strength of sectarian division and the unionist and nationalist politics that divided workers within the North.  As I have noted a number of times, the short duration of the civil rights struggle, as well as its very uneven development, meant there was little time to challenge the historically developed political consciousness already imbued within Irish workers.

And this partially explains why republicanism, despite its obvious weakness in Belfast and Derry, was able to grow rapidly while the left did not.  Irish republicanism is not an alternative to nationalism but simply a variety of it, its most militant manifestation.  The transformation of consciousness required to move from support for the Nationalist Party to Republicanism is qualitatively different from one required to move from any sort of nationalism to socialism.  It should be recalled that, for many Catholic workers, this move to more militant nationalism was not made until republicans stopped being republican, in the traditional militant sense, and had given up armed struggle.

McCann notes that it was difficult to engage in debate within the Derry Citizens Action Committee (DCAC) because this would be denounced as political and divisive of Catholic unity.  He also argues that not enough was done to distinguish the socialist case from the nationalist one.  But there is ample evidence of socialists arguing the case for class politics through many of their interventions, and while their failure to build a significant socialist organisation was something that might otherwise have been achieved, this outcome was not primarily due to their failure to distinguish themselves as socialists.

Both McCann in Derry, Bernadette Devlin in her election campaign, and Peoples Democracy generally, were all loud in their opposition to green capitalism and their support for working class unity.  They failed because of the strength of its division, and while as Marxists this may be regrettable to have to admit, it is not at all incomprehensible. The difficulty of intervening in the DCAC that McCann noted did not make refusing to enter it an answer, but reflected the consciousness not only of the middle class leadership of the DCAC but of the Catholic workers it led, as McCann himself has noted.  The difficulty also remained outside the DCAC and most leftists joined it (although it would appear with little influence) because they feared isolation outside it.

The forces overwhelming the small and divided socialist movement, as McCann appears to recognise, were the events that “had been rushing forward, pell-mell, helter-skelter, at a pace never previously experienced in stultified Northern Ireland, hurtling, as we thought, towards a possibly imminent resolution.”

A whirlwind of events can sometimes suggest more fundamental changes occurring than actually are, and that requires analysis, which McCann notes was missing.

But this is still true today, with this lesson still unlearned, with the left now bigger but no nearer building a genuine working class party, which requires not just a much bigger mass membership but a class conscious class from which to draw its ranks and a democratic culture that can provide the analysis with which it can take leadership.

Today the left in Ireland, and not not just Ireland by any means, is still too much impressed by action and not by the consciousness that drives it, and is in turn derived from it.  Honest and sober analysis still escapes it, with support for Brexit a particularly egregious example of a mistaken political programme.  Even when criticising what he sees as the failure of the left in the late sixties to build a serious socialist organisation he repeats the idea that what was needed was to recruit “rapidly from angry, urgent working class youth”, themselves the product of the “pell-mell, helter-skelter” of events that the left sought to keep up with.

As these lines are posted mass demonstrations and riots are taking place in the US following another racist killing by the police.  References have been made to this being an American ‘revolution’ when in fact we are a very long way from the American working class posing a socialist revolution,  Presenting the missing ingredient as a revolutionary party begs all the questions about the nature of the working class and its movement from which it alone can be created.

The erection of barricades to separate Catholic areas under attack from the RUC and loyalists, symbolising for McCann the obstacles to unity between Catholic and Protestant workers, is testament to the strength of sectarian division but does not make their erection mistaken.  Hence the tragedy.

His speculation that socialists might have grounded themselves in the trade union movement, but had become separated from it, does indeed argue correctly for an orientation by socialists to the working class as it is, and not to counterpose one’s own sectarian interests, organisation and programme to the workers own movement, but McCann himself notes the passivity of the official movement and its effective abstention from the civil rights campaign.  To reverse this would have required a fight inside the trade unions, against its leadership, and this could only have succeeded in a struggle in which socialists had won the support not only of many Catholic workers (from nationalism) but also Protestant workers (from unionism).

No one can claim that this could have been achieved in a few years; it is the work of many years and involves forces greater than exist within the six counties.  In the meantime it could not have been wrong to orient to those willing to campaign for democratic rights in order that they might be directed to such an orientation.

That there is still no settled view on what socialists should have done in 1968 – 69 is not surprising since this is largely fed by what socialists think we should be doing now.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

Civil rights and socialist strategy 3 – the weakness of the left

The strategic differences that existed and discussed in the previous two posts had implications for the tactics to be pursued, although the relationship was not straight-forward.

In order to appreciate the different viewpoints, it is necessary to look at the balance of political forces in the civil rights movement and in particular the strength of the left and its potential influence and power.

We have already noted the weakness of the political influence of the wider labour movement in previous posts but it is important to recall it again as it is the primary candidate as the mechanism by which a working class and socialist strategy could have been pursued.

While the Northern Ireland Labour Party and trade union movement passed a few resolutions supportive of civil rights no trade union affiliated to NICRA and neither the industrial or political wings of the movement would mobilise their membership in support.  The reason is obvious.

The members of the trade unions were not a different species from the majority of workers who voted unionist, nationalist, or on occasion the very homeopathic socialism of the NILP; and, of course, others were apathetic and unpolitical as is the case everywhere.  The trade union movement reflected this, with a survey in 1959 revealing that Catholics were 46% of branch secretaries in the mainly unskilled ATGWU, 12% in the AEU, 9% in the Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives and Technicians, and 0% in the Boilermakers.  Of 53 unions surveyed and 379 branch secretaries, 80% were Protestant.

This is not to employ sectarian prejudice that assumes a person’s politics, including a trade union rep’s, can be read across from their religious background, but it is unfortunately the case that in the majority of occasions this is true, and is precisely the problem.

One might expect this not to be so much the case with trade union representatives, precisely because they have sought active participation in the union, but this doesn’t get away from the problem, because all trade union reps are acutely conscious of their role as a representative of their members and are careful not to tread too far from those whom they represent.  Where radical motions are passed at trade union branches this often reflects the influence of a few activists carrying a room consisting of a small fraction of the membership.

For most union officials the primary concern is the organisation within which they hold a position and the primary concern of the members they represent is wages and conditions.  In the North of Ireland there is strong pressure against raising political issues that would upset working relationships, and the trade union apparatus is keen that this remains the case, with policy not usually going beyond platitudes.

The problem of course is that the ‘unity’ then trumpeted is weak and subject to official public opinion relayed through the state and employer, and then imported through the trade union apparatus.  What this unity very definitely isn’t is socialist.  That it exists is not unimportant, in fact it signals a general and widespread aversion to conflict, especially sectarian conflict, but it is not the grounds on its own for creation of a radical alternative, and can only be presented as such by those with a willing blindness and by denuding this alternative of all political content.  The utterly reactionary content of unionism and its unsuitability to play any role in a trade union meant it only occasionally intervened in the scope of trade union affairs, which facilitated the weak ‘unity’ existing.

The very partial exception to lack of direct labour movement involvement in civil rights agitation was Derry, which was the second city in Northern Ireland and had a Catholic majority, and where the local Labour Party was central to the early civil rights struggle.  It was also in Derry that the civil rights movement exploded onto the stage and thousands of people were repeatedly mobilised.  If intervention by the left would make any difference, then Derry was as good a place for this to happen as anywhere.  That it didn’t should be taken into account when weighing the different arguments.

The prominent socialist and civil rights leader Eamonn McCann has written that almost all of those involved in organising the October civil rights march were “socialists of one sort or another.”  They were involved in the Derry Labour Party, but despite the blatant sectarian discrimination and poor housing the local trades council barely took up the latter, condemning the corporation but refusing in June 1968 to receive a delegation from the Derry Housing Action Committee.  It opposed a harsh fine imposed on its members as a result of a protest but would take no real action.

Civil rights did not come before the council until the month before the October 1968 civil rights march, when a delegate wanted to know what its position on it was.  It was agreed to have a special session if the council was invited to participate and to wait until its observers reported back on a march organising meeting.  It then decided that it “supported the establishment of equal civil rights in Northern Ireland for all citizens regardless of class or creed” and “participation . . . should be left to individual trade unionists”, before turning to the question of a pedestrian crossing at Westland Street.”

It played no role in a number of spontaneous strikes by Catholic workers that followed the October march, especially during 18 – 19 November, but decided to pledge support to the moderate Derry Citizens Action Committee and did not seek representation in it, although it did agree to send delegates to a NICRA meeting in Belfast.  Following the O’Neill reforms that month it went back to where it had been before, with economic and social issues to be pursued through official union and Government channels.  At its annual general meeting in April 1969, Billy Blease, who was a senior officer of the Northern Committee, told the audience to concentrate on the ‘real issues.’   As has been noted before, the Citizens Action Committed had more influence over Catholic workers than their trade unions.

McCann notes that no sizable socialist party was built from the experience of building the October march and “in the long run, we didn’t punch our weight,” but he also describes those involved as “our relatively small, raggedy band of socialists’, who had “a loose style of organisation . . . coalescing on an ad hoc basis against the wishes of party leaders and without fretting about the contradictions which all knew must be lurking.”

In his book ‘War and an Irish Town’, McCann states that “the leftists involved carried out no clear political struggle within either organisation [Labour Party and Republican Club].  We could not, because what we shared was not a common programme but a general contempt for the type of politics which prevailed in the city.”

He records that an attempt had been made to “codify our ideas’ in May with a ‘perspectives document’, which stated that ‘the situation which confronts us is not promising.  The great mass of the people continue, for historical reasons, to see religion, not class, as the basic divide in our society.”   What was required was a socialist party but he notes that “any perspective of building a clear-minded political organisation in opposition to the dominant tendencies within the Labour or Republican movements was forgotten in the frenetic round of breaking into empty houses, organising pickets and encouraging individuals to stand up to the landlords and local bureaucrats.”

Neither the labour movement as a whole, at least in its attitude to civil rights, or the radical socialists on its periphery, were in a strong position as the campaign exploded into a struggle on the streets.

Back to part 2