The crisis in British politics (2) – the mess on the left

Kier Starter, leader of the British Labour Party, flagging his alterrnative (Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Where does the current political crisis put the left?  I can’t remember a time when it has been so divided, not only over the causes of a crisis but what to do about it.  Brexit, Covid lockdowns and the Ukraine war have all contributed, as have years of printing money.  Yet many on the left have supported Brexit, demanded more severe lockdowns, supported war and western sanctions, and it even has its fair share of proponents of Modern Monetary Theory.

Even the minimum of policies raises division: against austerity includes opposition to energy price increases, which can be solved by ending support for war and removing sanctions. Opposition to the threats to workers living standards, and attacks on democratic rights opened up by the threats of removing EU laws, can be advanced by opposing Brexit.  This means giving focus to the awareness of the majority that Brexit has failed, by explaining the purpose of re-joining the EU.  

Photo: Morning Star

The Labour Party isn’t going to fight for these because it has, like some on the left, supported all the steps that got us here.  Some on the left have therefore said that it is better to face a weakened Tory government than a stronger Labour one committed to more or less the same agenda, so we shouldn’t call for a general election.

There are things wrong with this, although it has the merit of admitting that the left is chronically weak.  This should give it pause to recognise just how close, or rather how far away, it is to leading any revolutionary change, and to considering just what the preconditions for this would be.

Opposition to the call for a general election may reveal the belief that your alternative is weak but the weakness of your enemy will not make up for it.  Labour support for ‘balancing the books’, and therefore austerity, can easily permit their implementation by Sunak if he introduces the odd seemingly ‘fair’ implementation of pain, which would also prevent Labour from shouldering the blame. The effect of further Tory mistakes and division could either be to encourage opposition to austerity or usher in a Starmer government essentially wedded to the same project.

Calls for a general election to kick out the Tories should not be opposed but since we know that it’s not nearly enough the left should concentrate not on this but on what Marx would have called the momentary interests of the working class as well as its future.

This means supporting and generalising the strikes workers are taking to defend their living standards. It means politicising them, including with the demand to bring down the Tories with the purpose of also setting the expectations that will be placed on any alternative Government, including a Labour one.  It means organising in the trade unions to make them more democratic, which is easier to do when workers are engaged in union activity, and building the grounds for longer term rank and file activity.  It means similar activity in the Labour Party, and since this is mainly a defensive struggle against the leadership, it means defending existing rights and supporting the very few potential candidates who will get to stand in an election that support working class action.

If it is argued that the Labour Party is dead then such a view must be tested by the activity that can be organised within it; by the possibility of activating members and recruiting others through the strikes that are taking place, and some proof that the lessons of numerous attempts to organise a party outside it have been learnt.  It’s not enough to say that numerous battles have been lost if it is not clear to thousands of Labour members that the war inside it is over and definitively lost.  It’s not enough to propose some party that does not exist to something you claim is dead but will in some way have to be recognised as very much alive for millions who will vote for it.

Unity on the left is not enough.  There is no point blindfolding ourselves to Brexit, which cannot, like Starmer hopes, simply be parked, but has to be opposed.  Those who have supported it show no sign of recognising their mistake when it stares them in the face.  Likewise, what is the point of demanding protection from the enormous increase in energy prices while supporting war and the sanctions that make it inevitable?  The political struggle against these disastrous positions must continue.

The left, both in Britain and Ireland has put forward actions that the state must implement to address these problems: through nationalisation of energy companies, windfall taxes or price caps, increased state spending and taxation of the rich.  All of these rely on the state doing what the working class needs to do itself, and the state doesn’t exist for this purpose.  We have all just been given a huge lesson on who really controls society and what they are prepared to do even to a pro-capitalist Government that doesn’t play by its rules.

Nationalisation will not gain control over the supply of gas and oil so nationalising retail companies (known as suppliers in the industry) will not reduce prices; and you can’t nationalise companies in other countries.  This is also the case in Ireland, where much of the industry is already nationalised. You certainly can’t nationalise Russian gas, but you can pay a lower price for it, if you argue it’s generally good practice to buy from the cheapest supplier.

You can’t continue to increase workers income from state payments to make up for inflation when the financial markets won’t even support unfunded tax cuts for the rich.  While it’s an acceptable propaganda demand to increase taxation on the rich you won’t be able to make this the answer to the crisis. The underlying weakness of British capitalism is set to continue worsening, especially outside the EU, and redistribution of the tax burden isn’t going to change this.

The Tories have already overturned proposals to reverse corporation tax increases and there comes a point where significant increases would simply amount to a form of state capitalism, and one that is to the benefit of workers!  That’s not the society we live in, or one that could possibly exist.  Income taxes on the rich require a government to legislate it; require a capitalist class to accept it without shifting its incomes abroad, and a state willing to implement it.  The British tax authorities have proved time and time again their willingness to indulge tax avoidance and evasion by corporations and the rich. Tax incentives are as much a part of the code as levies and these always apply to the rich; workers don’t need an incentive to work since it’s the only way they can afford a tolerable or decent standard of living.

The recent crisis of the British state’s creditworthiness was caused not by proposed tax cuts for the rich but by increased debt caused by income payments during the pandemic, and early predictions of a £150 billion bill for energy supports to energy companies in lieu of consumers paying.  The idea that the financial markets will accept lending money to fill any gap left after screwing Britain’s rich, so that the incomes of the working class can be protected, ignores the political interests of the players involved in these markets. At the very least increased interest rates would be demanded if steps along this road were taken, which means they would get their pound of flesh one way or the other.

It makes no sense to offer alternatives that depend on actions by the state when you also argue any possible government won’t introduce them.  To paraphrase Marx again, the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself.  So must the fight against austerity, the defence of living standards and against war.

Under capitalism the place of the working class is determined by its absence of property ownership – the means of producing goods and services.  If you create these by your labour but don’t own them, you can’t expect to receive the revenue arising from them, and especially from a state that is there to defend existing property rights.

This means that the income of the working class comes overwhelmingly from wages and if these are being reduced through inflation the correct response is to increase them, including through strikes.  The working class in many countries is now in the fortunate position of being in a period of low unemployment where it can take advantage of its position in the labour market to organise, demand wage increases and fight for them.  The longer term perspective is to take ownership of the means of production, and thus of the goods and services produced, so it can determine the distribution of the incomes derived from their use and sale.  In this it will obviously come up against the state determined to defend the rights of existing ownership.

It should be axiomatic for the left that the benevolence of the state is not the answer.  It takes the workers’ own money and then decides how much of it to give back, to whom and for what purpose.  It also borrows, then taxes workers to repay the borrowing.  In all this it buys the goodwill of workers with their own money, pretending it is that of the government.  The problem of lack of income then becomes one of demanding that the state gives you more, in the form of lower taxes, higher welfare and pensions, payments for not working (as in Covid) or subsidies to pay energy bills.

This analysis derives from very basic understandings derived from Marxism that many of its adherents accept in theory only to forget in practice.  The failure produces a phenomenon not unknown to Marx.

It produces an inverted reality in which workers seek salvation in actions by the instrument of their subordination.  It illustrates the grain of truth in accusations of the right that welfare dependency creates a culture of dependency, of which the politics of much of the left is a demonstration.  It is indeed ironic that the right often betrays a better appreciation of the role of the state than many self-described socialists.

This state-centred socialism has resulted in support for Brexit because it is believed that somehow the British state can be relied upon to be more progressive than any European one, and can become the vehicle to introduce socialism.

It fuelled demands for more stringent lockdowns during the pandemic because the state can miraculously give people money to buy goods and services it then prevents them from making and providing.

The Left’s “zero-COVID” strategy in operation in China (Chinatopix Via AP)

It now results in support for a notoriously corrupt capitalist state and its armed forces because it supposedly embodies the interests of Ukrainian workers; indeed the workers of the world, even while it acts on behalf of the most powerful states, together forming what is customarily called imperialism.

The Left joins supporters of the Ukrainian state who just happen to be fascists https://theintercept.com/2022/06/30/ukraine-azov-neo-nazi-foreign-fighter/ Photo:NurPhoto via Getty Images: veterans of the Azov volunteer battalion attend a rally in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 14, 2020

From all this we can see that the task of the left in assisting the British working class in the current political crisis needs some work itself.  A lot of work.

Back to part 1

The war in Ukraine – the blind leading the blind

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, ‘The Blind leading the Blind’

Much of the argument over the war in Ukraine hits their target but misses the most essential point.

So, it is important to know that the historical demand for self-determination argued by Lenin does not provide support to those who want to support the Ukrainian state and its victory in the war.

It’s vital to understand that the massive role of the United States and NATO in provoking and affecting the course of the war also determines the war’s character.

It is important to be aware of the wider agenda of the United States, which wants to diminish Russia, and necessarily therefore achieve a change of regime in order to encircle China and also diminish it – as the only state capable of seriously challenging US hegemony.

It is instructive to appreciate the role of ultranationalism in Ukraine, which countless photographs of fascist iconography on display by the Armed Forces of Ukraine makes impossible to deny, or so you might think.

It is also necessary to understand that there is nothing progressive about the Russian state or its invasion and that this necessitates opposition to it.  To do otherwise, because Western imperialism also opposes it, is to accept that it is impossible for the working class to have an independent policy and that some indispensably correct positions must in effect be voluntarily surrendered.  It’s origin arises partially from some similar considerations of the pro-war, pro-Ukraine left who abandon the socialist programme because we can only currently fight for it with weak forces, which means, of course, that these will always remain weak.

It is, finally, important to understand what constitutes imperialism so that we can understand how the world works, the better to change it.

However, as important as these all are, the most important issue to understand is that the working class must identify and fight for its own interests including against the various states of the capitalist class, which are weapons to defend their system.  It is necessary to form a separate party of the working class to advance this understanding, including that such understanding categorically rules out support for any capitalist state, not only in war but especially in war.  This means that it is impermissible to support either the Ukrainian or Russian state and every attempt to do so is bogus and a gross betrayal.

We all know that this has not stopped large numbers of self-described socialists from supporting the Ukrainian state; defending the role of NATO when not actually supporting it; ignoring the wider agenda of the imperialist hegemon; minimising or simply ignoring the reactionary ideology of the Ukrainian state, and claiming that the interests of the working class in a war that now defines world politics is aligned with fascist fighters in Ukraine, the Ukrainian state and US imperialism and its NATO allies.

You would think that some extraordinary arguments would need to be employed to make such a case remotely plausible.  That it is not remotely credible is proved by the poverty of the arguments put forward in support of it, many of which have been addressed in previous posts.  What this implies is that much of what describes itself as left, radical left, anti-capitalist or even Marxist is nothing of the sort, and no wailing about politically sectarian argumentation can wash away the significance of the division that now exists.

A friend sent me a link to an article that presented itself as a summary of the leftists who are actively supporting the Ukrainian state.  What is noteworthy is their immediate emphasis on arming it:

‘Mick Antoniw and a group of British trade unionists went to Ukraine to deliver a car, military equipment and medical supplies to Ukrainian trade unionists currently in the Armed Forces.’

The statement calls, in particular, for the supply of military equipment and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, as well as for the country’s foreign debt to be written off.’

‘As a reaction to the ‘pacifist’ left, the initiative has focused on promoting weapons supply, and solidarity with the people of Ukraine . . .‘

‘ENSU’s founders and members are opposed to all imperialisms, but support the right of oppressed peoples everywhere to seek military, economic and diplomatic support from their invader’s enemies.’

The authors make much of their opposition to imperialism but it is a strange sort of opposition that supports the intervention of the United States and NATO.

The Polish organisation has apparently distinguished itself by displaying its opposition to the country’s notoriously Russophobic political culture through having ‘unequivocally (sometimes even by Polish standards) taken a stance on the side of Ukrainians.’

From the text of the interviews it is clear that the solidarity of these associated groups comprises of the same analysis and perspective as most of the reactionary governments in the region:

‘This is an existential and fundamental issue. Not only for the Ukrainian left, but for the whole Eastern European and Nordic countries, for all countries that have been under the threat of Russian imperialism.’

‘This closeness of EE, Baltic and Nordic left is happening on the ground of the resistance to imperialism everywhere, solidarity with sovereign countries, with the people and working class who want to determine their own fate everywhere.’

So, the sovereignty of capitalist states; the ‘people’ and the ‘working class’ are all compatible, all allies in determining their own fate ‘everywhere’.  So where in all this is opposition to the capitalist state, recognition of the division of ‘the people’ into classes, and identification of the separate interests of the working class?

The elimination of these independent interests leads to the witless belief that the capitalist state and ruling class will behave likewise and see things the same way.  What else could be meant by the following?

‘We try to convince western left activists that Russia is in no way anti-imperialist and that Ukrainian society deserves our solidarity irrespective of our disagreement with the oligarchs or the ultranationalists, conservatives and neoliberals in the Ukrainian parliament. Unfortunately, some western leftists believe that only western imperialism is a problem, so their solidarity with Ukraine is weak if not absent.’

We are meant to support ‘Ukraine’ even if we disagree (is that all?) with those who own it, rule it and are fighting to preserve its alliance with imperialism!  ‘Resistance to imperialism everywhere’ includes support for US and NATO backing for the ‘oligarchs and ultranationalists’ etc. How could socialists justify ‘solidarity . . . with the oligarchs or the ultranationalists, conservatives and neoliberals.’?

Blindness to the interest of the working class also leads to failure to see what is in front of their eyes.  Apparently it’s not western sanctions or US sabotage of pipelines that is causing the shortage of energy in Europe:

‘We are worried that Russia will manipulate oil and gas issues as winter approaches, encouraging cowardly and opportunist politicians to call for the partition of Ukraine – ‘peace at any price’ in exchange for Russian gas.’

So we get this ridiculous alternative:

‘Therefore we recently started networking with environmental groups and consumer protection activists to argue for accelerating the green transition.’

A transition that will take decades to achieve is an answer to the energy shortage this winter; and this will be accomplished through pressure by ‘environmental groups’ and ‘consumer protection activists’!  This is not serious.

The article we have been quoting starts with the following passage:

‘Since the beginning of the full-scale war, we have published numerous critical texts about those leftists who have got stuck in the past and keep seeing the war as just another confrontation between Western and Russian imperialism. Some adhere to this idea due to sincere beliefs; others simply choose a more comfortable position of not intervening or even searching for arguments against the support of Ukrainian resistance (‘nationalism,’ ‘protection of Russian-speaking people,’ ‘promotion of NATO,’ etc.). Westplaining helps them close their eyes to the whole picture.’

The author claims we must be ‘searching’ for arguments to justify opposition to the war and the Ukrainian state, and then gives us an (incomplete) list of what they might be! He thinks we are stuck in the past in opposing capitalist war, forgetting the socialist principles that have inspired this opposition and the lessons learned from the support of reformist parties for the mass slaughter of two World Wars.

This is not just another conflict between Western imperialism and Russia and no amount of covering for NATO or the ‘oligarchs ultranationalists, conservatives and neoliberals’ will change their role or the character of the war.  

It is not ‘comfortable’ to choose to fight for the independent interests of the working class and against both the reactionary Russian invasion and the Ukrainian state and its imperialist sponsors.  And as the author himself illustrates, we do not have to ‘search’ for arguments to defend our refusal to support the reactionary ‘Ukrainian resistance’, which no amount of leftists supporting will make progressive. 

We are told that we are ‘Westplaining’ – ‘a form of gaslighting that imposes Western views through the heads of residents of Central and Eastern Europe, particularly Ukrainians.’

Given the support for NATO and US imperialism in much of Central and Eastern Europe, any ‘Westplaining’ that has occurred has been accomplished by all the forces – oligarchs, ultranationalists, conservatives and neoliberals who support NATO and the US. We in the western left are expected to show solidarity with all of them and through them to our own ruling classes and capitalist states, which we are supposed to encourage to arm the kleptocratic Ukrainian State. Just who is attempting the gaslighting?

Whatever socialist now believes that these forces are on our side is lost to socialism.  Whoever in the West believes that their own state and ruling class can play a progressive role in the world has no right to proclaim themselves as socialist.  They politically disarm their own working class and present it up on a plate for imperialism’s ‘progressive’ wars of the future.

The article referenced above is of use only to show the poverty of arguments of the pro-war left.  That their authors believe them in any way credible reminds me of what the musician Prince is purported to have said of Michael Jackson’s album ‘Bad’.  It should, he said, have been called ‘Pathetic’.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! The President’s wife doesn’t support war?

Dunleer Co Louth

One can only react with a wry smile at the current kerfuffle over a letter by the wife of the President of Ireland regarding the war in Ukraine. After decades of hypocritical and sanctimonious sermons on the evil of violence, the urgent imperative for peace and negotiations to achieve it, the essential requirement now is for war; victory in war for Ukraine.

The President’s wife, Sabina Coyne Higgins, has written to that august publication ‘The Irish Times’ to express dismay and disappointment that an editorial in the newspaper did not “encourage any ceasefire negotiations that might lead to a peace settlement”. 

This led to indignant indignation among politicians that accused her of asserting moral equivalence between Ukraine and Russia and failing to follow the Government line of support for the former.  Ukrainians in Ireland were quoted as not actually understanding what she was trying to say or of accusing her of not understanding what was going on. One Ukrainian who has lived in Ireland for 15 years said that it is “very easy to call for peace when you live in safe and comfortable conditions for a very long time” although the uproar induced would seem to indicate that it is easier to call for war.

Another Ukrainian stated that “If Russia lays down its arms, there will be no war. If Ukraine lays down its arms, there will be no Ukraine. That is why Ukrainians have not wished each other peace for a long time — they wish only victory. And we won’t settle for less . . .”

The newspaper has recently run a long article extolling the nationalist narrative of Ukrainian history and the inevitable conflict between it and Russia and ‘the real explosion of Cossack identity that started with the Russian invasion in 2014.  Whole units, like the Azov battalion, wear similar [Cossack] haircuts, moustaches and earrings.  It’s popular.’  The headline quotes the Ukrainian interviewee as saying that ‘This is a war of destruction. Either we destroy the Russians or they destroy us.’

So, we read justification of a nationalist programme that would be pilloried as bellicose and reactionary were it presented in support of any other country.  The journalist responsible sees no need to interrogate the place of armed fascists in this resurgence of uncompromising nationalism or the meaning of proposed destruction of whole peoples.

She is not however to be singled out for blame.

What has been striking has been the almost universal acceptance of a tale of childlike simplicity: that Ukraine is the force fighting for freedom against an unprovoked invasion by evil Russia.  As the photograph above shows, the smallest Irish towns in Ireland parade their support for the second most corrupt country in Europe against the first.  In a war barely understood their simple truths have been substituted for the complexity of a messy reality.

But they too are not soleley to blame.  Much of the left has decided to incant Lenin’s policy of ‘self-determination of nations’ in order to apply a rusty Occam’s razor to the war so it too can support ‘Ukraine’.  In doing so they demonstrate that they have not got the first clue about what this policy meant never mind whether it is relevant today to the war in Ukraine.  Self-determination thus becomes support for an already independent capitalist state in a war with another so that it can codify its alliance with the world’s biggest imperialist military alliance.  Freedom to join NATO and to land your own people in a destructive war as a result is what it actually means.

This is what is clearly happening, and as Lenin said: ‘one of the basic principles of dialectics is that there is no such thing as abstract truth, truth is always concrete . . . ‘ This reactionary war on both sides is thus the expression of the reckless policy of seeking NATO membership by Ukraine and Russia’s determination to show that it meant what it said when it warned that this was a red line not to be crossed.

It matters not that Russia has no right to determine the policy of Ukraine.  What right has Ukraine to threaten Russia through membership of NATO on its doorstep?  Neither Ukrainian nor Russian workers have any interest in standing behind either ‘right’, never mind dying for it.  But the pro-war left has decided that the right of capitalist powers to defend their prerogatives is justified under some abstract argument about the principle of self-determination that the working class has to pay for.

Their complete inability to have any purchase on reality is repeatedly exposed.  So through their call for arming Ukraine they fail to expose or oppose the role of NATO and its share of responsibility for the war.  They say Ukraine (by which they must mean this country’s capitalist state) must receive arms to fight, so dependence on NATO weapons, i.e. imperialism, becomes the road to self-determination!  But since such arms as can be effective are only available from NATO they cannot, with any seriousness, now oppose the rearmament of the Western capitalist powers.  A strange sort of ‘anti-capitalism’.

They oppose transfer of offensive weapons but the steady ratcheting up of the weapons supplied leaves them as useless spectators awaiting the transfer of whatever they decide as ‘offensive’, at which point are we to believe this capitalist war will change its character?

In this article one spokesman states that ‘we should neither support the latter’s sanctions, nor demand that they be lifted.’  But it’s as if the European Union has read this and decided to take the piss out of such ‘lack of support’ by having round after round of sanctions (currently seven) that the pro-war left will not demand are lifted?  Are there no sanctions it would straightforwardly oppose in advance as opposed to accept after the fact?

This blog opposed western sanctions from the beginning because they could only hit working class Russians hardest.  Now we see that they are hitting workers in the west as well but is there now opposition to them among those for whom the ability of a capitalist state to determine its military alliance is paramount?

Across all the issues arising from the war, from the progressive content to Ukrainian nationalism to the primary issue being Russian imperialism, the pro-war left has simply parroted the mainstream bourgeois media. Like support for Brexit; support for total economic lockdown to deal with Covid-19, and now support for sanctions, various parts of the left have championed policies that have disarmed the working class when it comes to identifying the causes of the cost-of-living crisis to which these policies have contributed. 

We can expect that none will accept the slightest responsibility.  Just like the Tories who support Brexit and ‘Ukraine’ they want to have their cake and to eat it. To oppose the capitalist EU but ignore the effects of Brexit on freedom of movement and living standards. Demand more extensive and longer economic lockdowns but ignore the social consequences some of which, like economic dislocation and inflation, now hit them in the face.  Support ‘Ukraine’ but ignore the boost it has given to the NATO imperialist alliance and the effect of sanctions on living standards.

For a blog seeking to advance Marxist politics this is important, but not as important as the failings of the imperialist strategy to which some leftists provide a grotesque mirror image.

The bourgeois media asks us to believe that our ‘freedom’ is being protected by one of the most corrupt countries in Europe whose best fighters are fascists.  We are threatened that unless we support it against the evil Russians, which have such a useless army that Ukraine can defeat it, they will steamroller across Europe.  We must accept the possibility of freezing this winter because Russia has ‘weaponised’ gas supplies, even though the West has sent real weapons to kill as many Russians as possible and started the whole gas thing by preventing operation of the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline.  We are called upon to blame Russia for potential famine in a range of countries because of its war on Ukraine but ignore the effect of Western sanctions on the supply of Russian food to the world, something that has had to be implicitly admit by its lifting of some of them.

None of this is consistent with the claims of the western bourgeoisie and its yellow media.  In Ireland the homeopathic letter from the Irish President’s wife has opened up a small window for questioning support for the war.

Over the weekend I read the ‘Financial Times’ (FT).  It had a review of the book ‘Nazi Billionaires’ which records the largely hidden history of Germany’s richest capitalist dynasties who escaped punishment after the war for their collaboration with the Nazi regime.  This was the conscious policy of the major western powers for whom strengthening German capitalism was much more important than punishing Nazis for their crimes or imposing justice on behalf of their victims.  This has not stopped regular evocation of the enemies of the Western capitalist powers as the new Nazis with Putin as the new Hitler.  Just like after World War II, these states are not interested in justice but in their own power and that of their capitalist class.

The only consistent position opposed to the war is the socialist argument that workers have no interest in fighting for the system that exploits them, in wars that we pay for in money and blood. To do so we must oppose nationalist flag-waving and a media that on this occasion does not even seek to hide its bias. A certain Mrs Higgins has proved more in tune with such a task than many of the left.

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.