U.S. and Saudi Arabian forces conduct a closing ceremony for Exercise Friendship and Iron Hawk 14 on April 14th, 2014, near Tabuk, Saudi Arabia. U.S. and Saudi Arabian forces conduct a closing ceremony for Exercise Friendship and Iron Hawk 14 on April 14th, 2014, near Tabuk, Saudi Arabia. Photo: New York National Guard / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED

Mike Wayne argues that developing an opposition to war and empire can help to strengthen working-class ideas and organisation

Grant Shapps has come a long way. Once a rather obscure backbencher, he hit the headlines in 2015 when it was found he had, as he put it, ‘over-firmly denied’ not having a second job as an MP. The job in question was running a web marketing firm selling ‘get rich quick’ books to the gullible. One of his Tory colleagues, Michael Fabricant, said that he would not ‘buy a used car’ from Grant Shapps.

Yet as we know, being a snake-oil salesman is almost required these days to rise to the top of the Tory Party. Grant is now the Defence Secretary, and in his recent first major speech at Lancaster House (more of a mansion on the Mall), he had some terrifying news for us. Back in the days of the Cold War, there was, apparently, a comforting assumption that ‘we were dealing with rational actors’ for whom the nuclear doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction would provide some deterrence.

But now, faced with Iran and North Korea and an emboldened Russia, with China waiting in the wings, looking for any signs of Western ‘weakness’ on Ukraine, we can no longer assume such ‘rationality’. Instead ‘the new powers are far more unstable and irrational.’  It takes some brass neck from an advocate of Western imperialism, which did its utmost to coax Russia into an ill-advised invasion – in part to break Germany’s growing economic and energy dependence on Russia – as well as the usual expansionary imperatives of political and economic power, to talk about others as ‘irrational’ actors.

Shapps, as the apostle of sweet reason, told his audience that the answer in a more dangerous world was to increase defence spending – pushing it up to 2.5% (it is almost there now) and preparing the population for more wars. Chillingly he said: ‘In five years’ time we could be looking at multiple theatres involving Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.’ I often think that many people who do not spend a lot of time thinking about wars in faraway places, do not realise how pathologically insane the ruling capitalist class is. How for them, there is no cost too high in human lives when it comes to a defence of their interests. And they are prepared to destroy on a global scale – in wars and climate destruction.

Enduring anti-imperialism

In some ways, the ruling class are instinctive, practical Lukácsians. It was the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács who philosophically developed the concept of the ‘totality’ as the necessary horizon for revolutionary consciousness and practical action. Thinking and acting with the totality as your frame of reference means connecting in space and time the political, the economic, the social, the geographical and the cultural, in fact all the different facets of life which capitalism both connects and paradoxically breaks apart in the practical consciousness of the majority through competition and the profit motive. Yet the ruling class, and especially its leadership cadres, which our former web-marketing salesman has elevated himself into, do think and act with some strategic totalising frame of reference. They certainly know for example the connection between politics, commercial trade, raw materials, military power and geography.

Of course, their practical intuitive Lukácsianism is not quite what Lukács had in mind, because their global and future thinking, their knowledge and understanding of the past, is predicated on keeping the majority of us in an altogether different condition of class unconsciousness. Our action is to be strictly circumscribed, narrow, short term, preferably individualist, fearful and, when aligned to any bigger ‘collectivity’, it is to a bad abstraction, a ruling-class definition of the nation or ‘Western civilisation’. And capitalism has some big cultural weapons on its side to turn our understanding of social relationships into a broken apart set of inert things. Marx called this fetishism, and a global advertising budget of $1 trillion is dedicated to reinforcing such social and economic patterns right into the inner recesses of our minds, habits and hopes.

One of the few success stories that the UK left has had, in a troubling period of defeat has been the Stop The War Coalition. Founded in the weeks following the September 2001 attacks on America, anyone on the left knew that Imperialism’s response would be to rain down more death and destruction around the world. Shapps’ ‘rational’ actor did act rationally, if we mean by that, predictably, but it did not act with anything that could be called ‘reason’, a rather different category.

In February 2003, Stop The War mobilised up to two million people to oppose Blair’s lock-step alliance with George Bush junior’s war machine aimed at Iraq (they had already bombed Afghanistan). That march was part of a global protest involving up to thirty million people across 800 cities. The war did not ‘stop’ of course, but the opposition broke Blair’s political legitimacy, it probably helped diminish an internal terrorist threat by showing solidarity with the Muslim world, it put a spanner in the wheels of future British imperialist action by dwindling popular support for overseas violence in Libya and Syria, and it made global public opinion a factor in preventing the neo-conservative ‘rational’ actors in the White House from expanding their war into Iran.

Here we are now in 2024, and of course the wars are ongoing. Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza shows why the success of the anti-imperialist left around Stop The War is so imperative. While there have been other movements in the last twenty years, they have all fizzled out. Stop The War is a testimony to both the need for durable organisation and for a broad alliance. The anti-imperialist success in ensuring that imperialist adventures are not cost free for our ruling class also brings us back to the politics of thinking the ‘totality’.

Connecting war and class war

Israel’s war on a largely defenceless civilian population is having all sorts of interconnected geo-political impacts which threaten to spiral things out of control, in both a bad way, but also potentially as a valuable learning experience for millions of people. In response to the war, the Houthis are attacking merchant ships in the Red Sea. US and British imperialism have in turn responded by bombing the Houthis, but this is nothing new. Their proxy in the region, Saudi Arabia, has been doing that for years to little discernible effect on Houthi military capacity. In fact, since the US/UK bombs dropped, the Houthis have expanded their military activity. This is having a devastating economic impact on Egypt, which relies on earning $9.4 billion from trade flows through the Suez Canal. Egypt’s ruling class will be desperate to see the assault on Gaza come to an end as a result, and, in the back of their minds, they want to avoid at all costs the revolutionary explosions of 2011 returning.

Anti-imperialist politics thus requires thinking and acting in a connected world and connecting the political and economic interests driving war abroad. Sometimes that requires making very abstract forces concrete. Watching a 2011 documentary in which Louis Theroux conducted interviews with ultra-Zionists, it was almost as if history had not started in October 2023, when Hamas launched their attacks in Israel. Imperialism, like the ruling class generally, always requires very concrete social groups to be ‘on the ground’ to make things happen. While they are not the prime movers of events, in the sense that they could be easily stopped by the Israeli state, the ultra-Zionists’ take-over of Palestinian land is a very real and concrete driver of events. Are we really prepared to see thousands of Palestinians slaughtered, perpetual war between Israelis and others in the region, international tensions and violence escalate so that, frankly, as Theroux’s documentary shows, a bunch of religious nutters talking about God’s will and acting as colonial racists, can indulge their mad fantasies?

At the same time, everything happening now cannot of course be explained fully by identifying the role of the ultra-Zionist land and property grabbers. Nor can Britain’s overseas propensity for military violence be separated from its internal domestic politics. Here Stop The War’s relative success for the left also highlights our relative weakness. It is a beautiful act of humanity that hundreds of thousands of people come onto the streets of Britain to defy the media and political elites’ classification of them as ‘hate marchers’. But it would also be very nice if the left could mobilise hundreds of thousands of people to march for the public ownership of water, gas, electricity, rail and other essential services, currently run by rapacious, privatised, profit-seeking, rentier capitalist multi-nationals. The anti-imperialist project against perpetual war is a good in itself of course, but if we are to become practical Lukácsians in the sense that Lukács authentically meant, it means we have to connect the class war abroad with the class war at home.

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