Chris Nineham argues that being against imperialism in general isn't enough - anti-war activists in the West need to oppose the aggressive expansion of the Nato military alliance
There is confusion in parts of the left about how to react to events in Ukraine. The history of the left’s response to wars tells us that being against imperialism in general isn't enough. To have any impact on actual events, the movement has to get beyond generalities and respond concretely to particular conflicts. That means understanding them in their wider geopolitical context - distinguishing between world powers and regional powers, judging how the national question is shaped by this matrix, and taking in to account where we are placed and what influence we can have.
The first thing to be clear about is that the US and its allies form the big power bloc in play in the region. Not only do they have a massive advantage in firepower, but they are on the offensive in the region, and have been for decades. This is crucial to understanding the origins of the current crisis. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Nato has been enlarging to the east. Twelve countries in Eastern Europe and the Baltic have joined Nato since 1991, despite an agreement between the US and Russia that countries in the Russian Federation would not be pulled in to the Western orbit.
As the western strategy analyst Stratfor explains, Nato and EU expansion in the last two decades has dismantled Russia’s traditional buffer zone. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Nato was 1,000 miles from St. Petersburg, after the Baltic States joined up, it was a little more than 100 miles away. Further incursions are a direct threat to Russian security, 'the loss of Ukraine as a buffer to the West leaves Russia without that depth and hostage to the intentions and capabilities of Europe and the United States… Russia could not afford to remain on the defensive; the forces around it were too powerful.'
Secondly, growing influence of Nato and the EU in the region explains the way events within Ukraine have unfolded too. There is debate about the exact trigger for the protest movement at the end of last year, but it is clear that its leadership was overwhelmingly pro-western as well as nationalist from the start. It is clear too that Nato and the EU powers have shaped the political outcomes. The hacked phone call from the US Under-Secretary Victoria Nuland to the ambassador in Ukraine reveals a leading neo-con nonchalantly deciding who is in and who is out of the Ukrainian interim government.
Given such deep Western involvement it is no surprise that the current government is packed with oligarchs, technocrats and fascists and that it is radically neoliberal. The movement has been co-opted. In these circumstances, denouncing all interventions equally and calling for support for the Ukrainian revolution, as some on the left are doing, is worse than meaningless.
Nato expansion in Europe
Third, where we are matters. Located in one of the main centres of Western imperialism, the only way we can make a contribution to stopping a war is by doing our best to block the Western war effort. Unsurprisingly politicians and the media in the West are expending a huge effort demonising the Russian regime as corrupt, oppressive, dictatorial and expansionist. Of course Putin is running a nasty, corrupt, imperialist state. But why should the left join this chorus? There is after all no significant section of British society that needs convincing of Putin’s downsides. Better surely to focus our energies on exposing the hypocrisy of the West's behaviour. Our job is to stop our government and its allies posing as friends of democracy and liberty and to relentlessly expose the way their actions are contributing to this crisis.
Some on the left have adopted the slogan 'Neither Washington nor Moscow' to respond to the crisis in Ukraine. But this is a mistake that can only weaken the anti-war movement. The phrase originates from a longer slogan coined by the International Socialists, forerunner of the SWP, during the Cold War; 'Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism.’ It was never meant as a response to imperialism or imperialist war, it was a statement aimed to distinguish the IS’s political approach from those on the left who regarded Russia as socialist.
As a statement of political principal it is far too general to be used as a response to wars. And of course it wasn't - happily if you think about it. The International Socialists didn't use it in any of the anti-colonial liberation struggles, even though many liberation movements were backed by Russia. They didn't use the slogan as an alternative to defending Cuba against US imperialism in the 1960s. Rather, they sprang to the defence of the revolution against western blockade and intervention. In fact the IS complained at the time that the ‘non-Communist Party left has been remarkably slow in…publicly defending the Cuban revolution’. It didn’t take an even-handed approach to the American war on Vietnam either. Instead it sided with the North Vietnamese state and the liberation movements, which were backed by Russia and China. Thankfully, IS members took to the streets against the war chanting ‘US out of Vietnam’.
The organisation didn't remain neutral during the Iran - Iraq war in the 1980's. Once it became clear that the Western powers, backed by Russia in this case, had started to support Saddam Hussein against Iran, the SWP took a clear position of calling for the defeat of Iraq. The reason is simple, the US was the main imperial power in the region, amongst other things it wanted to punish Iran for the humiliation of the 1979 revolution. A defeat for Iraq and the US would have been a step forward for everyone struggling for liberation in the region. Of course when the US turned against Saddam Hussein in 1990, our focus shifted and we marched against the attack on Iraq, despite the fact Saddam had invaded Kuwait.
More recently the SWP never used the slogan ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’ during the Bosnian and Kososvo wars in the 1990s when the West was opposing Russia's main ally in the region, Serbia. Even though Russia armed Serbia and the Kosovans were widely presented in the West as a group struggling for independence that needed protection, the SWP - along with most of the wider anti-war movement - quite rightly argued that Nato was using the crisis to extend its power across the former Yugoslavia. All efforts were made to oppose the disastrous Western bombing.
The politics of paralysis
This is not a new debate. It tends to surface in one form or another whenever war is on the agenda. The danger is that an even-handed approach cancels itself out, and ends in paralysis. Worse still, it can lay the movement open to influence from domestic war propaganda. In the run up to the war on Iraq there were many voices on the left urging Stop the War Coalition to match our anti-Bush chants with slogans denouncing Saddam Hussein or distancing ourselves from terrorism. The movement’s leadership, including members of the SWP, argued strongly against doing this.
The experience of movements in France and elsewhere which adopted a balanced approach proved this correct. Balanced slogans failed to mobilise because they gave too much ground to the mainstream. Turning the anti-war movement in to a mobilisation against the Blair government, against its hypocrisy, its attacks on civil liberties, its contempt for democracy as well as its disastrous foreign policy, massively strengthened the campaign in Britain.
Famously, at the start of the First World War, opposition to imperialism and war in general was not enough to immunise the left against war fever. Despite a series of anti-war conferences and declarations, including a call for implacable struggle against the war issued by the International Socialist Bureau days before it started, socialists succumbed to massive patriotic pressure and backed their own government’s war effort almost everywhere. There were many reasons for this. But lack of political clarity was certainly one of them. In Germany the right wing of the Social Democratic Party persuaded their comrades to back war by playing up the danger Russian autocracy posed to 'German liberties'. In Britain the TUC was convinced to back the war to protect Belgium against German despotism, and so and so on.
This capitulation led to a traumatic split in the socialist movement and a re-assessment of revolutionaries’ attitude to war. In Germany, Karl Liebknicht and others regrouped anti-war socialists around the slogan ‘the main enemy is at home’. Lenin saw this as a crucial step. Superficially, it might seem paradoxical for socialists in opposing countries to denounce their own governments as the main enemy.
Seen as an overall strategy to end war it makes perfect sense. As Lenin pointed out any other attitude leads to accommodation, ‘both the advocates of victory for their governments in the present war and the advocates of the slogan “neither victory not defeat”, equally take the standpoint of social-chauvinism.’ He went on to point out that the slogan ‘the main enemy is at home’ is only problematic if you think that an anti-war movement can’t make any difference. He argued that only someone who believes that ‘a war started by the governments must necessarily end as a war between governments and wants it to end as such, can regard as “ridiculous” and “absurd” the idea that the Socialists of all the belligerent countries should wish for the defeat of all “their” governments and express this wish’.
Solidarity in action
The logic of this is crystal clear in practice. Anyone who wants an end to imperialist intervention in the Ukraine will have been encouraged that 50,000 marched through the streets of Moscow last weekend against Putin's push to war. The banner at the front of the demonstration read 'Russia and Ukraine without Putin'. It is extra-heartening to know that the Russian anti-war movement is not offsetting its opposition to Putin’s warmongering with calls for the West to get out. If it did it’s easy to see how it could be undermined by Putin’s claims that he is only responding to Western aggression.
This debate is mainly about how we can be most effective. But concern that socialists can be pulled on to the side of their own ruling classes in war situations remains real. During the Cold War, some former revolutionaries in the US took their criticisms of Russia so far that they accepted the West had a role to play in spreading democracy. Followers of the ex-Trotskyist Max Schactman, they ended up opposing calls for an end to the bombing of Vietnam and linking their peace efforts with demands for guarantees of democracy and trade union freedom from the Vietnamese regime.
Today the shocking sight of some socialists marching on demonstrations calling for western military intervention in Syria should be a warning about where downplaying the importance of homegrown imperialism can take you. It is has to be asked, too, why sections of the left are so much more exercised about Russian imperialism at this precise moment than they were when Russia was involved in a full scale imperialist bloodbath in Chechnya in the mid 1990s?
Commenting or campaigning?
A final argument for a ‘detached’ approach to the current crisis is the claim that war with Russia just isn’t going to happen. There are, of course, many pressures militating against an imminent armed western intervention in the Ukraine, including its proximity to Russia, the Russian nuclear arsenal, and important trade links particularly with EU countries. Some argue that, because of all this, war with Russia can be ruled out. But as Stratfor argues, ‘such views appear sophisticated but are in fact simplistic.’ One of Russia’s great anxieties is that the ethnic unraveling that threatens Ukraine could spread around the region. The consequences would be incalculable, but could include confrontation between Russan minorities and Nato member governments.
But the game-changing event here is the shift in the West’s attitude to Russia, and conflict over Russian interests can take place in many theatres, from the Baltics in the north to the Balkans or Iran to the south. Already neo-con sympathizers like Michael Ignatieff are touring the studios arguing that it is time to stand up to Russia in Syria and get back to planning bombing raids. As the Economist argued over Christmas, the combination of growing great power rivalries and regional instability is uncomfortably reminiscent of the way things looked just before World War One. Even the Ministry of Defence recognizes that, partly as a result of campaigning, there is a popular anti-war sentiment at large in Britain. It might be sensible to be doing our best to strengthen it, and that means taking on our warmongering government and its friends.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
More articles from this author
- 'The resistance is taking shape': Wakefield rallies against Islamophobia
- Philosophers with No Clothes: A Review of The War Against Marxism
- Holding the bosses feet to the fire: Strikers light up the climate movement
- Sunak’s feelgood budget flop
- Talking peace, risking war: why the hawks are shaping the US’s China policy
- Brighton 2021: Members speak out on Starmer, stitch ups and next steps for the left
- 'On the road to nowhere': Leah Levane on Labour, Starmer and the expulsions - video