David Bush looks at what a slogan developed during World War 2 and crystallized as a position during the Cold War means for socialists in the 21st century

As the war in Syria was transformed from an uprising to a civil war to a brutal regional and proxy conflict many on the left struggled to make sense of the conflict and how to orient themselves towards it. The involvement of both the United States and Russia in the war (not to mention many other nations) saw many on the left use the old slogan “Neither Washington Nor Moscow” to articulate their political position and even shape their political strategy.

But what does a slogan developed during World War Two and crystallized as a position during the Cold War, mean for socialists in the 21st century? I want to suggest this slogan is useful in understanding the history of socialist politics, and for me at least, points to a generally positive socialist perspective of rejecting imperialism while also putting the self-emancipation of the working class front and centre.

But I have been wondering how specifically useful is the slogan in our current context? I mean after all, it was a slogan aimed at politically winning the working class away from the ideological pulls of both Stalinism and liberal social democracy and towards a genuine working class politics. But in today’s world it has to be asked, what pull does Moscow’s politics or Assad’s politics actually have on the working class in the United States, Great Britain, Canada or other western nations? What is this slogan responding to in today’s world exactly?

The history, development, use, and purpose of “Neither Washington Nor Moscow” can tell us a lot about how we should and shouldn’t understand imperialism and how to respond to it in our time.

Origins of Neither Washington nor Moscow: Second Internationalism in crisis

With increasing tensions between the great imperial powers at the turn of last century the Second International debated and passed a series of resolutions about preventing and responding to the possibility of imperial conflicts. The 1907 Stuttgart resolution clearly explained why socialists must oppose war:

Wars are favored by the national prejudices which are systematically cultivated among civilized peoples in the interest of the ruling classes for the purpose of distracting the proletarian masses from their own class tasks as well as from their duties of international solidarity.

The 1912 Basel Manifesto of the Second International laid out how socialists should respond to the threat and outbreak of the war:

If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.

In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.

The Second International failed the test of war, with most of its national parties siding with their own ruling class, they framed their capitulation in terms of national defence. Arguing that protecting the productive capacities of capital in their home countries would help preserve a viable transition to socialism, as would protecting democratic institutions from foreign invasion. The initial popular enthusiasm for the war, stoked by the ruling class, was also used by socialists supporting the war to argue against splitting the working class movement by opposing this obvious pro-war sentiment. As Trotsky noted at the time:

Imperialism attained its object by pushing the proletariat into a position of “national defence”, which, to the workers, meant the defence of all their hands had created, not only the immense wealth of the nation, but also their own class organizations, their treasuries, their press, in short, everything they had unwearingly, painfully struggled for and attained in the course of several decades. Imperialism violently threw society off its balance, destroyed the sluice-gates built by the Social Democracy to regulate the current of proletarian revolutionary energy, and guided this current into its own bed.

The response of the Bolshevik Party was to remain faithful to the resolutions passed by the Second International. Their immediate reaction was to turn the imperial adventure into a heightened class struggle at home. Aleksei Badayev, a Bolshevik sitting in the Duma at the time, declared:

The working class will oppose the war with all its force. The war is against the interests of the workers. On the contrary, its edge is turned against the working class all over the world. The Basel Congress of the Socialist International in the name of the world proletariat, passed a resolution declaring that, in case of the declaration of war, our duty was to wage a determined struggle against it.

We, the real representatives of the working class, will fight for the slogan, ‘War against war!’ Every member of our fraction will fight against the war with all the means at his disposal.

In the wake of the betrayal by the Second International socialists began to wrestle with the root causes of the capitulation. For them the failure of Second International Marxism to resist the war was not a personal failing of certain leaders, rather it was the result of a long brewing political divide within the international over the vision of and pathway towards socialism. Those that favoured the parliamentary road to socialism, or saw no role in the party in making revolution, were incapable of offering a practical political alternative to the war. The pre-war pronouncements, manifestos and resolutions offered up by the Second International were sufficiently vague and ultimately toothless, they fudged the growing political divide between revolutionary and evolutionary socialism, between reformism and revolution. Hoping to build the opposition to war and a renewed international socialist spirit a minority rump of the Socialist International organized the Zimmerwald conference.

For the Bolsheviks around Lenin, who were part of the Zimmerwald Left, this meant turning the imperial war into a civil war at home. Others at Zimmerwald argued for calling for immediate peace. The Zimmerwald Left put forth an argument stemming from the Second International that the correct orientation of each national group was to oppose its own ruling class’ drive to war. This was referred to as revolutionary defeatism. As Karl Liebknecht’s put it in his letter read allowed at the Zimmerwald conference, there was to be civil war not civil peace.

In a series of articles in 1953 Hal Draper noted the debate over revolutionary defeatism at the time was ever shifting. As Lenin was trying to combine defeatism with an anti-war policy, Luxemburg and Trotsky, who were wary of the of the rhetoric of revolutionary defeatism,

counterposed, to the military victory of their own government’s imperialism, the victory of their own working-class struggle for socialism. To the military victory of their own government, they did not counterpose a desire for its military defeat. They counterposed their own socialist solution to any military outcome, victory or defeat, on the plane of the inter-imperialist conflict.

This important but somewhat terminologically muddled debate was fundamentally over the nature of imperialism and the best tactics and strategies to oppose it. What is important is that all sides attempted to rescue the socialist anti-war perspective. The notion of using the war to agitate along class lines was accepted by both sides and made its way into the final manifesto.

From revolution to World War Two

The Russian revolution and the formation of the Comintern cemented the political split between reformism and revolutionary socialism. The way in which the revolution unfolded concretely demonstrated the correctness of rejecting social chauvinism. However, as the Russian revolution was ravaged by the civil war, its working class decimated, and the revolution became isolated as revolutionary wave in Europe retreated, the Russian Communist Party shifted its political line away from international revolution towards ‘socialism in one country.’ This mirrored the outlook of the rising bureaucracy in the Soviet state. As Duncan Hallas notes:

‘Socialism in one country’ fitted well with the needs and aspirations of the newly-emerging bureaucracy. It meant focussing on a national arena which they could aspire to control, rather than on an international class struggle which they could not. At the same time it was a banner around which they could group. As Trotsky put it, socialism in one country ‘expressed unmistakably the mood of the bureaucracy. When speaking of the victory of socialism, they meant their own victory.’

The logic of this change of position meant that other communist parties were subordinated to the survival of the USSR. The Comintern, which was an instrument for world-wide revolution, was slowly dispensed with, meeting infrequently and eventually abolished. The international class struggle was subsumed into the interests and outlook of the Soviet state.

Between the reformist wing of the socialist movement and the communist movement adopting a ‘socialism in one country’ perspective stood a very small layer of socialists around Leon Trotsky, who had split from communist parties after its abandonment international revolution. This International Left Opposition became known as Trotskyism. Trotskyists saw themselves as standing in the best traditions of international socialism, as James Cannon a prominent American follower of Trotsky stated:

Trotskyism is not a new movement, a new doctrine, but the restoration, the revival, of genuine Marxism as it was expounded and practised in the Russian revolution and in the early days of the Communist International.

This tiny movement faced its first real test about how to apply its political perspective of international socialism to actual current events with Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. The Independent Labour Party in Great Britain, which split from the main Labour Party in 1932, was divided over the issue, with one faction of the party seeing this as just a quarrel between two dictators. Trotsky correctly saw that in the context of rising fascism and imperialism the invasion of Abyssinia should be resisted no matter what one thought of its ruler Haile Selassie. As Trotsky stated at the time:

If Mussolini triumphs, it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of the Negus, however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this.

C.L.R James, then a member of the ILP and a follower of Trotsky opposed the use of sanctions by the British against Italy for fear disorienting class struggle politics by subsuming it under the banner of the British state:

Let us fight against not only Italian imperialism, but the other robbers and oppressors, French and British imperialism. Do not let them drag you in. To come within the orbit of imperialist politics is to be debilitated by the stench, to be drowned in the morass of lies and hypocrisy.  

Workers of Britain, peasants and workers of Africa, get closer together for this and for other fights. But keep far from the imperialists and their Leagues and covenants and sanctions. Do not play the fly to their spider. 

Now, as always, let us stand for independent organisation and independent action. We have to break our own chains. Who is the fool that expects our gaolers to break them?

The young Trotskyist movement was able to put forward a political position that rejected growing imperialism and fascism in a way that aimed to build the class struggle at home while also maintaining the centrality of an independent working class politics internationally. Trotsky was repeatedly clear that Selassie should not be romanticized, but that a defeat of Mussolini was a set back for not only Italian fascism. but for British and French imperialism as well. This was a concrete application of the politics of international socialism. The only problem was that Trotskyist movement was too marginal for this to be impactful.

World War Two: The development of Neither Washington nor Moscow

The outbreak of World War Two put the young Trotskyist movement to its greatest test. The zigzags of the Comintern and Soviet state policy from the late 1920s through the 1930s meant communist parties around the globe went from rejecting united activity with socialist parties and working within established trade unions at the at beginning of the 1930s to forging alliances with liberal parties and trade union bureaucrats by the end of the decade. Most notably the Soviet state signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany. This non-aggression pact carved up Poland, saw the Soviets send resources to Nazi Germany and abandon the European working class in its fight against fascism.

Trotsky and his followers predicted that a period of revolutions and rising class struggle would follow the war and they stridently opposed the imperial war while aiming to stoke class tensions at home. For Trotsky, the USSR and its socialized property relations, though not its ruling bureaucracy, were to be defended. For states invaded by the USSR – the Baltic states and Poland – the Stalinist regime could be criticized but those invasions laid a foundation upon which socialism could be built. As Trotsky argued:

First, the defeat of the USSR would supply imperialism with new colossal resources and could prolong for many years the death agony of capitalist society. Secondly, the social foundations of the USSR, cleansed of the parasitic bureaucracy are capable of assuring unbounded economic and cultural progress, while the capitalist foundations disclose no possibilities except further decay…

Our tasks in the occupied territories remain basically the same as in the USSR itself…

We must not lose sight for a single moment of the fact that the question of overthrowing the Soviet bureaucracy is for us subordinate to the question of preserving state property in the means of production of the USSR: that the question of preserving state property in the means of production in the USSR is subordinate for us to the question of the world proletarian revolution.

This position was critiqued inside the Trotskyist movement, most notably by Max Shachtman and those who would go on to form the Workers Party in the United States (splitting from the Socialist Workers Party). The split was over the question of the nature of the USSR and a perspective of class struggle from below. In his reply to TrotskyShachtman critiqued Trotsky’s unconditional defence of the USSR and the notion that it could have a positive revolutionary influence into states it had conquered:

I cannot leave unmentioned your references to the “revolutionary” role of Stalinism in its recent invasions.

“In the first case (Spain), the bureaucracy through hangman’s methods strangled a socialist revolution. In the second case (Poland) it gave an impulse to the socialist revolution through bureaucratic methods.”

Here again, I find myself compelled to disagree with you. The bureaucratic bourgeois revolution – that I know of. I know of Napoleon’s “revolution from above” in Poland over a hundred years ago. I know of Alexander’s emancipation of the serfs “from above” – out of fear of peasant uprisings. I know of Bismarck’s “revolution from above.” I know that Hitler and Mussolini play with the idea of an Arab “national revolution” in Palestine out of purely imperialist and military reasons – directed against their rival, England. But the bureaucratic proletarian revolution – that I do not know of and I do not believe in it. I do not believe that it took place in Poland even for a day – or that it is taking place or is about to take place in Finland.

Shachtman and his followers in the Trotskyist movement would frame this perspective as “third campism”, stating during World War Two, that they we were for “neither London-Paris or Berlin-Moscow but for the third camp of international socialism”.

We say there is in this war a third camp independent of either of the two warring imperialist camps, the camp of the world working class, cut off from all political control, inarticulate, brutally repressed when it raises its head, but ceaselessly in ferment, pushing up from below, breaking through the surface to assert its human rights and needs. This is our camp, the camp of the hundreds of millions of men and women with black and white and yellow and brown skins who have no say about whether “their” country sends them to death. To accept any of the two-camp alternatives, however good and noble one’s intentions may be, is to give aid to the war-makers, since all three slogans are essentially more or less well disguised devices to enlist the masses under one military banner or another. The policy of the third camp, the camp which fights under the banner of world revolution to overthrow all the existing governments of the two imperialist camps, this is the only realistic anti-war policy.

The development of third campism was in response to a series of on-going crises within the international socialist movement about how to resist imperialism and how to build the independent capacities and politics of the working class to shape its own destiny. The proponents of third campism, like the Trotskyist movement before it, saw their position not as an original insight, rather as the correct application of international socialist politics in their current context.

Reorienting in the Cold War context

When the war ended instead of confronting an internal crisis as predicted the USSR expanded its sphere of influence. A brief upsurge in working class militancy in the West in the immediate aftermath of the war was followed by the Cold War and stabilization and expansion of world capitalism. These event caused a series of debates and splits on the Trotskyist left over questions of the nature of the Soviet Union that underpinned the assumptions that world revolution was around the corner. Was the Soviet state a workers state, albeit degenerated, because of its property form? If so what were the territories conquered by the USSR? Were they capitalist, or a deformed workers’ states due to their property form, or something else entirely? These questions created all sorts of confusion and debate within the Trotskyist movement.

While these debates may seem abstract and even comical in retrospect, socialists were wrestling with difficult and unprecedented questions in a very new context. The emerging Cold War between two, but unequal, blocs meant the left had to have clarity with how to position itself in this conflict both at home and abroad. Those in the CP’s orbit who believed the USSR was the torchbearer for international socialism, seeing its actions as bringing socialism to newly conquered nations, concluded the USSR must be defended. The tactical and strategic orientations of CP activists around the globe flowed from this perspective. Often in many countries this saw the CP aim to make progressive blocs with the liberal left or “progressive” capital. Those on the social democratic or liberal left who saw in the USSR an unspeakable authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies concluded that they must align their own ruling class’ anti-communist worldview against the USSR’s totalitarianism.

Socialist taking a third camp position aimed to develop an alternative analysis and theory of the Soviet bloc and the new capitalist global order. Some like Shachtman and Bruno Rizzi viewed the USSR no longer as a workers’ state, but as a bureaucratic collectivist society or bureaucratic state socialism. The logic of this position, with its sole focus on the authoritarian nature of the state bureaucracy, rather than the political economy of the system, lead some like Shachtman to increasingly see the USSR as the greatest imperial danger. Others like Tony CliffRaya Dunayevskaya, and C.L.R. James developed an analysis that the USSR was state capitalist (there were very notable differences within this perspective and it should be remembered that various socialists, anarchists and social-democrats had used this terminology to describe Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, though most did little to develop the theory). While the bureaucratic state socialist position saw the USSR as a new form of class society, the state capitalist analysis tried to grapple with the mode of production and the position and alienation of workers in society and the workplace.

The development of theories like state capitalism were not merely an exercise in an abstract political debate, rather they aimed to clarify and rearticulate the Marxist principle of the self-emancipation of the working class. In most western countries in the post-war era working class politics was split between liberal/social democratic parties and unions hewing close to the Cold War logic of their respective ruling class and communist parties and unions aligning themselves with Moscow. State capitalism was an attempt at reasserting the importance and centrality of the working class in the struggle for socialism.

State capitalism posited that the USSR could and did engage in imperial adventures. This was not simply a function of policy choices made by a ruling bureaucracy, but more fundamentally they were the expression of the political economy of the USSR, where the logic of accumulation and expansion, were thrust on the state via external global military competition.

The Socialist Review Group, a third campist split from the Fourth International in Great Britain, adopted the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow” and argued the Cold War had defanged working class socialist politics stating, “the present power of the two world camps is largely based on the dragooning by force and trickery of the many by the few. Let us set up our standard against all such methods and lead the way to working for a genuine international socialism–not for Washington, nor for Moscow.”

Applying the Third Campist perspective

The slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow” was outlining a political outlook that was challenging the twin ideological influences of Moscow and Washington (via communist parties and social democratic parties) on the working class. The slogan was never developed or intended to specifically guide concrete political action in a given circumstance, rather it was about placing class struggle from below back at the centre of socialism.

For instance the Socialist Review Group’s position on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was to support the push for unilateral disarmament of Great Britain, while also noting that both sides of the Iron Curtain’s game of nuclear brinksmanship stem not simply from misguided or bad politicians but from the logic of imperial rivalry and capitalist competition. In articles and editorials in International Socialism in the late 1950s through the early 1960s, the SRG/IS position was not simply that both sides should disarm or that the USSR and United States and it allies are equally to blame. Rather that the CND should push to transform the call for unilateral disarmament into a heightened class struggle, as numerous International Socialist articles and editorials in 1960 argued:

It (the CND) should broaden its propaganda to take in all aspects of the struggle against the Powers that Be. Strikers should hear that the Campaign believes a blow against the Boss is a blow against the Bomb, Workers should know and see that CND will mobilize support for them not only as marchers but as workers. In this way working class action against individual bosses might be united and directed against the bosses as a whole, might indeed become a political struggle against the entire system and its monstrous issue – the Bomb…

‘Our strongest weapon would be to link the issue of defence with the stuff of ordinary life … It is obvious that progress for the Left lies in breaking down the high stakes of nuclear diplomacy into the small chips of class struggle.

The critique of the CND presented in the journal was that right-wing had well understood the unstated implications of the unilateralist position, withdrawal from NATO and the dissolution of the American alliance, while the Left had largely shirked these implications. As an editorial in the journal stated “we must clarify the implications of unilateralism: the fight against the Bomb is a fight against the Boss.”

The SRG third campist position was not a simply  “Neither Washington nor Moscow” but the application of a class struggle line to a concrete campaign under a specific set of historical conditions.

The western left’s position on the Vietnam war also follows a similar trajectory. The initial liberal left opposition to the war in the United States, which was supported by the CP, was framed around the call for “negotiations” between the North Vietnamese and the United States. A small minority of radical pacificists and socialist took the position of immediate withdrawal. The British International Socialists’ (formerly the SRG ) position on the conflict was that of immediate withdrawal. The organization had major political differences with the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, and did not think their program or perspective were the path to socialism, but they supported their victory nonetheless, stating:

Thus there is no contradiction between support and realistic appraisal. We must oppose the terrorism of US intervention in Vietnam, and we must defend unconditionally the right of Vietnamese to be left free of outside intervention – to do so, in the circumstances, is to offer unconditional support to the NLF. But Ho Chi Minh is not thereby made some genial uncle, nor the NLF merely the Vietnamese YMCA – the fog of cosy sentimentality with which Communists seek to cloud the issue must not mislead anyone. Of course, when the issue of American power is settled we know what kind of regime and policies the NLF will choose – and be forced to choose by the logic of their situation. But that is, for the moment, another fight, the real fight for socialism. Socialists must support every genuine struggle against imperialism and capitalist oppression – whether it be by workers of the advanced countries or by all classes in the backward.

While a rigid an unthinking application of the line of “Neither Washington Nor Moscow” could lead to the adoption of a position of neutrality in direct and proxy struggles between the Cold War superpowers, it would completely miss the context of a rising political movement in the West against war and imperialism as a 1966 International Socialist editorial stated:

Those that choose solely to oppose the Vietnam war as a moral gesture or in isolation from the domestic policies of the Government, not only misunderstand the significance of Vietnam, but also disarm themselves: for only working-class action can ultimately check Wilson and begin to end the war.

The politics of third campism captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s as protests, rebellions, and upsurges from below swept across the globe. The emergence of Eurocommunism, and the growth of Maoist and some Trotskyists organizations on the far-left signalled a modest ideological shift in left politics from the beginning of the Cold War. The dominance of Moscow on working class politics in the West was on the decline. The death of Stalin in 1953 and the invasion of Hungary in 1956 initiated a crisis in western communist parties that was only exacerbated by the waxing and waning of class struggle in the 1970s. Communist parties in places like France and Italy shifted to the right. The ebbing of class struggle in the West in the late 1970s meant the radical left had to contend with a new right-wing offensive against workers and new Cold War tensions.

This was the context of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. The USSR sought to support its ally the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and ensure the country remained in its orbit of influence. The United States funded and supplied the insurgency with arms and intelligence in order to deal the Soviets a military and geopolitical defeat. The response of third campists in the West was not to say USSR hands of Afghanistan, rather it was to understand the political context in which they were actually situated in the West. As Chris Harman explained:

If we were in Russia, that would mean vigorously arguing against the takeover of Afghanistan and welcoming every defeat of the army of occupation. But we are in Britain, where the slogan ‘Russians out of Afghanistan’ is being used to justify increased arms spending, the movement of the US Fleet to the Gulf, the British base in Diego Garcia, the British officers in Oman, the supply of guns to the hangman in Pakistan. We have to oppose these move-and the ideology behind them.

We have to insist: All imperialist hands-off Asia; No arms for the hangman who rules Pakistan or the slave owners who rule the Gulf states; End the American threat to Iran: the US Fleet out of the Gulf: British mercenary officers out of Oman; the Russians out of Afghanistan.

Likewise, the crisis in the Balkans, specifically the outbreak of the Kosovo War in 1998 and NATO led, bombing caused some confusion on the Left about how to respond to supposed humanitarian interventions by the U.S. led NATO coalition in “defence” of self-determination against Serbian aggression. Rather than simply backing the Kosovo Liberation Army in its bids for immediate self-determination, Harman situated the struggle in a wider context:

Under such circumstances, there can be no excuse for any genuine socialist backing the KLA’s nationalism. To do so would be to line up with an ally of imperialism and a proponent of ethnic cleansing, even if on a smaller scale at the moment than Milosovic’s. Socialists certainly see a place for Kosovan self determination in a final, peaceful outcome for the region. It is difficult to see how Serbs and Albanians can ever live together peacefully unless they accept each other’s rights, and this means Serbs accepting the right of Albanians to establish a state of their own in Kosovo if they so desire. But it also means the Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia guaranteeing to other ethnic groups, including the Serbs, their rights. Otherwise Kosovan self determination would simply mean the old Balkan game of one national group establishing a state, denying minority ethnic groups their rights, and leading to still more ethnic strife.

When early meetings of the Communist International discussed the Balkan question they concluded that the only way to satisfy the different demands for national rights was in the context of a socialist federation of the whole region and not through the further proliferation of rival capitalist states, each entrapping embittered national minorities within them. But all these arguments are purely hypothetical while the Nato war against Yugoslavia continues, for it is reducing Kosovo and much of Serbia to one great bomb site, where national rights for anyone are a sick joke. Only if the war leads to revolutionary developments in countries like Greece will things be otherwise. Meanwhile, the responsibility of socialists in the bombing states is to do our utmost to bring the war to an end.

Harman’s supple application of third campism never devolved into an abstentionist position. To wash one’s hands of the messiness of regional, proxy or direct imperial conflicts through a wooden declaration of an abstract slogan would be the opposite of trying intervening with concrete socialist politics in order to heighten the class struggle – it is blackboard socialism.

Neither Washington nor Moscow today

The dominant positions on the western left, including those with a third campist perspective, in response to first and second Iraq war was not to craft slogans such as “Neither Saddam nor Bush”, rather it was to frame the slogans and outreach around the messages “Don’t attack Iraq” and “No Blood for Oil”. These slogans were aimed at winning over the working class in the West and building the widest possible opposition to the war.

Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was surely odious. He was no bastion against western imperialism, and most of his time in power he was an ardent collaborator with the United States. But this did not give licence for the left to abandon opposing the war. The context of the two wars was an almost unchecked dominance of American military power in the world. It was argued repeatedly that the unopposed war and invasion of Iraq would not only lead to more death and destruction in the region but would embolden the reactionary right at home and abroad, create the conditions for further wars and strengthen the hands of capitalists.

The USSR is long gone and its ideological pull over the working class in the West with it. The United States remains the preeminent super-power in the world, with a massive military budget. We can also discern real trends towards a multi-polar world of imperial powers. The United States does not have the power to simply dictate and command the world economy or even the course of regional conflicts. Its imperial adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of showing its absolute strength have shined a light on its imperial limits. We are facing a context in which supposed “humanitarian” interventions in places like Libya, Syria by great powers or regional proxies will put the international left to the test.

American-Russian relations have been under increasing strain since the late 1990s, the wars in Syria and the Ukraine and the rise of Trump caused many within the liberal establishment to dredge up the spectre of the Moscow menace. Suddenly, the slow burn of anti-Russian sentiment of American liberals has mushroomed into a raging wildfire where no conspiracy is too outlandish.

The new red menace, however, is a pale imitation. It has successfully been used to build an anti-Putin and anti-Russian narrative, which has only served to ratchet up regional tensions, making the world less safe. It has, however, been far less successful (at least thus far) as a political cudgel against the left. This is because Putin’s Russia does not offer some radical political alternative to global capitalism, but is simply a rival imperial force within it (albeit much smaller than the United States).

We should of course reject the formulaic perspective that sees every enemy of American imperialism as a force for good who should be uncritically supported. The principles of third campism, about reasserting the primacy of class struggle at home and abroad, is as valid as ever. But in this context the slogan “Neither Washington Nor Moscow” tells socialists little and the working class even less about how to politically orient.

How socialists respond to imperialism should be conditioned by concrete factors such as, where socialists are located, their own capacities, the balance of class forces on the domestic front, and the specific global and regional context. The strategic goal of building class power, stoking ruling class divisions, while defending the principle of self-determination in anti-war activity have no ready-made cookie cutter formula. The history of applying a third campist position shows that the slogan of “Neither Washington nor Moscow” rarely if ever determined exactly how third campist socialists articulated or organized their anti-war position in a given context.

The key accent for third campism and the context of the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow” was always on the battle for ideas within the working class, the intra-class struggle. We should at the very least question the use of old socialist slogans like “Neither Washington nor Moscow”, that are stripped from their historical context and treated as eternal guideposts, or worse substitutes, for action. Instead we should see them as historical markers that remind us in the struggles to come only the working class can emancipate itself and those fights will need slogans that reflect our times.