Monday 14 March 2022

The Main Enemy is at Home

Politics craves simplicity, and tries to create it where none exists. The with us or against us populisms of the last 20 years are, in this sense, nothing new and are merely a condensation of existing logics. Politics is always and everywhere a question of power, of yeses and noes, and of individuals, groups, parties, classes, and states seeking to impose their wills on one another. It is war by more peaceful, persuasive, and often skullduggerous means. The reception in this country to Putin's invasion of Ukraine is no different. On the one hand we have Twitter-travelling liberals demanding no fly zones, as if war could be confined to evening news bulletins and not be visited on British cities and infrastructure by volleys of cruise missiles. And there is their opposite. Not the Tories, who are compromised by Moscow gold, but segments of the left who have thrown their lot in with Vladimir Putin.

People like Chris Williamson, for instance. His descent from a good, respected MP into "leftist", and I use that term advisedly, contrarian is a lesson for the ages. His advice to Ukrainians is to end the war by affirming neutrality and allowing self-determination for the Donbas region. As Williamson is a teetotaller I have no idea what's he's been drinking, but whatever it is has made him blind to an obvious territory grab. Joining him in the gutter is George Galloway's so-called Workers' Party of Britain. Taking time out from posting transphobia and puff pieces about the Ottawa truckers' protests against Covid precuations, they've republished Ranjeet Brar, of Britain's foremost Stalinist dynasty, for whom the war in Ukraine is Russia's crusade against fascism. Not as good as his spin on Russian occupation. To think all Ukraine needed was Papa Putin's tanks to roll in and the black earth would yield bountiful quantities of milk and honey. Our dozy friends at the Communist Party of Britain have chipped in their two penneth, celebrating the refounding of communism in Ukraine at the point of Russian bayonets.

Putting a minus wherever the British establishment places a plus is several things, but not the Marxism they pay lip service to. If we go back to another Vladimir, in his famous 1916 pamphlet Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism*, Lenin argued the world had been divided by the great powers into colonial territories and spheres of influence. The outbreak of the First World War was thanks to the inescapable tensions this produced. All it needed was a flaming touch paper. Russia then was one player, having secured its own colonial empire as one contiguous territory - a gigantic prison-house of nations, as Lenin put it. Fast forward 100 years and the pink and purple bits of the atlas are gone, but the tensions remain. The American-led Western alliance with its Middle Eastern and East Asian clients and allies is the world's predominant constellation of military forces, albeit one giving way to Chinese soft power in sub-Saharan Africa and humbled by Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan. Contrary to the decline of the West rubbish pushed by war on woke-types, NATO has expanded its influence and remit by taking in former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Republic countries and going to war in the Balkans, Libya, Syria, as well as Afghanistan in the last 30 years. Tensions within NATO over Iraq ensured the alliance took a formally non-combatant role in the conflict and subequent civil war.

Meanwhile, following the break up of the USSR, the brute privatisations of the 1990s and the looting of state-owned industry by the first round of post-Soviet oligarchs left Russia and its institutions in a decrepit condition. But while the country was starved of investment, untold billions of Roubles fled abroad to find profitable homes in the City of London and its associated baubles - property, football clubs, newspapers. Latterly the Russian economy got back on its feet as an exporter of energy, metals, and foodstuffs while its ties to global finance via oligarch money brought about a new gilded age for the Moscow elite. Here in lies the roots of the renewal of authoritarianism in Russia - a tiny elite protecting its ill-gotten loot with a corrupt and brutal state apparatus. And as this was in a process of formation during the chaotic Yeltsin years, the new state started flexing its imperial muscles. Russian power was humiliated in the first Chechen war, but succeeded under Putin after a slow but remorseless grind - one that also stamped mercilessly on the independence aspirations of nearby Degastan. In 2008 Russia invaded Georgia to underline the separation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and we know what happened in Ukraine in 2014 - the pro-Western revolution was a pretext for dismembering the country to Putin's advantage. Russia's movement against internal insurgencies and neighbouring states is not, in the first instance, a response to NATO moves but from the dynamo of Russian capital itself, one that aspires to a network of dependent states to satisfy its commercial and financial capital backed by the might of the state. The very picture of an imperialist power, to apply Lenin's arguments.

In a war between imperial powers, Lenin's advice is very clear. It's not a case of plague on both your houses and studied neutrality, but one of mobilising labour movements against a ruling class demanding we sacrifice body and soul for their profit margins. But when it's an imperial power versus a revolting colonial possession or a formally independent semi-colony (i.e. non-imperialist state), the matter changes. In his famous 1930s discussion of a hypothetical war between 'democratic' Britain and a 'fascist' Brazil, Trotsky suggested that, despite its political character, a victory for Brazil in these conditions would be a boon to national liberation movements everywhere and a huge blow to the then chief prop of the pecking order. If anything, the situation in Ukraine is even more clear cut. The country's dalliances with the West are entirely understandable, given the predatory behaviour of its large neighbour. To preserve their independence and expand their room for manoeuvre, small states have always curried favour with the bigger powers and played them off against one another. Indeed, they have to if their own home-grown capitals aren't going to be completely subsumed by and subject to foreign capital. Ukraine has had to play this game for the three decades of its independent existence, and now it is being invaded by an imperial power only a fool or a Putin apologist would deny the country's right to resist, as well as source support and weapons from whatever source.

In other words, in Lenin's terms when a semi-colonial country is attacked by an imperial power, in this case an attempt by Russia to wrest Ukraine from a slide into the West's sphere of influence by forcefully incorporating it into its own, our sympathies and support goes to the victims of aggression and where possible, our practical support to its labour movement and radical militias. What we don't do is play a stupid guilt by association game, whereby Ukraine's efforts to secure its position by courting the West invalidates its right to self determination. The meaning of 'the main enemy is at home', one of Lenin's most famous slogans, does not mean prettifying, supporting, and amplifying the propaganda of our ruling class's bourgeois rivals. For example, Putin's supporters here make much of Moscow's rhetoric against the neo-Nazi Azov regiment and the efforts to "denazify" Ukraine, but say nothing about the Wagner Group, a far right mercenary outfit closely intertwined with Russian intelligence. Nor the Chechens vomited up from Grozny, some of whom are drawn from the fascist Sparta batallion. I don't know what Putin's leftist friends are trying to achieve, but it's certainly not mass influence among the labour movement.

Our enemy's enemy isn't necessarily our friend. Our job, as always, is about opposing the ruling class. And handily, Putin's invasion offers us an opportunity. While supporting Ukranian resistance and rendering help to refugees, the crooked links between the Tories and Moscow are under public scrutiny like never before. This is where our own fire should be concentrated because it's where we can make a meaningful change, and because it's the right thing to do. Parroting Putin's propaganda can never be this.

Image Credit


Padmadipa said...

Spot on Phil! When pushed I say that I am a “Second International” marxist. Not at all of the actual content of the Second International - which looked at with the benefit of more than 100 years of hindsight, was often a bit ropey at best. But rather the political form is the same - the peoples of the world arranged against a global imperialism that has carved up the world into spheres of influence. And that must make us re think our approach. What is extremely uncomfortable for us on the left is that faced with Putin’s Slavaphilic (pre-capitsalist) ideology, we have to defend what actually amounts to liberal values. That sits very uncomfortably with much of the left as it appears you are to some degree at least going along with the capitalist ideology of the bourgeois west!

Shai Masot said...

Now, now. Tory-lite Labour MPs booed Corbyn when he threatened to expose the "crooked links" between the Tories and Moscow in paarliament. Chris Williamson didn't.

Give the man his due.

Lost Tango said...

Marx understood capitalism as a progressive force in its day. I suspect he wouldn't have much difficulty distinguishing between bourgeois democracy and kleptocratic dictatorship and understanding which was preferable.

Lost Tango said...

It's not actually true that NATO went to war in Afghanistan or Syria, by the way. While both interventions involved NATO members, they were not NATO operations.

1729torus said...

It seems the Russians are planning on cutting down Ukrainian forests and selling the lumber This is about colonialism and giving Russian oligarchs and cronies new sources of rent.

Blissex said...

«In 2008 Russia invaded Georgia to underline the separation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia»
«Tensions came to head in early August 2008, when, after nearly a week of clashes between Georgian troops and separatist forces, Georgia launched a concerted air and ground assault attack on South Ossetia's main city, Tskhinvali.»

«and we know what happened in Ukraine in 2014 - the pro-Western revolution was a pretext for dismembering the country to Putin's advantage»
«Because Mr Meshkov was the first - and so far only - president of Crimea. He was elected in 1994, by a landslide, on a platform of reuniting the Ukrainian peninsula with Russia. Like an eager suitor, he hopped on a plane to Moscow… only to find his overtures to Boris Yeltsin rebuffed. The Russian president was far too concerned with building a relationship with the West»

The two "misinformation" quotes above also show why many tories consider the BBC a communist mouthpiece like RT or SputnikNews.

Graham said...

The sad fact is that because most of the left do believe the main enemy is at home, they are failing to mobilise for or support basic solidarity actions and so are letting the Tories off the hook.

I attended a demo outside the home office tonight calling for the lifting of all restriction on Ukrainian refugees entering the UK. Only 30 people attended and the left, both inside and outside the Labour Party, was conspicuous in its absence. Last week's demo outside Gazprom was even smaller.

Anonymous said...

Rather than Brazil in the 1930’s, I’m thinking “poor little Belgium” in 1914 is a better analogy.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a criminal act and must be opposed, as it is by many Russians – and we’ve seen many do so at great personal cost.
But when your own political position chimes well with the pronouncements of your own imperialist bourgeoisie – as does your position- and you think that the main issue at home is to criticise the main bourgeois party for not being anti-Russian enough? That’s a far cry from Leninism, Trotskyism or Bolshevism.


Phil said...

It doesn't work because Belgium was a minor imperialist power with its own colonies. Ukraine is not. If you want to use something from that era, it would have been the Balkan states vs the Turkish empire. Or Serbia vs Austro-Hungrary - if the rest hadn't been pulled into the conflagration.

Anonymous said...

«you think that the main issue at home is to criticise the main bourgeois party for not being anti-Russian enough?»

The biggest political problems afflicting the UK "proletarians" are:

* First and foremost, Putin: his nuclear and chemical attacks on english soil, his manipulation of Trump, his criminal attacks over the years on Cyprus, Yugoslavia, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Donbas, Crimea, Libya, Siria, Yemen, and now all of Ukraine.

* Second, whether Johnson drank beers at "work meetings", the cost of wallpaper at number 10, the price of a meal in a posh restaurant.

* Third, the toppling of statues, and that women born without a cervix are really women.

Only timewasters and nitpickers talk about plainly minor topics such as more affordable real wages, quickly improving real housing costs, shrinking social services, more flexible work T&Cs, when "the economy" is delivering rapidly rising lifestyles to millions of "soft tory" swing voters.


Anonymous said...

I think Belgium is a fair analogy: Ukraine has been fighting a nasty war in the Donbass for over 8 years seeking to extend its domination over territory and the Russian speaking people there who clearly did not want to be part of what Ukraine became after Maidan. Those actions by Ukraine have been as imperialist as those of Russia in Ukraine and Chechnya – the only major difference being that of scale.

Moreover this war has been fought with significant NATO military and financial aid, making it to some extent a proxy war of several NATO powers against the Russian bloc.

There is no side for socialists in such a terrible conflict – and the fact that you’re on the same military side as your own bourgeoisie should give you pause for thought.


Jim Denham said...

"No side for socialists in this terrible conflict"?

In the Spanish civil war, no one on the left, shrugging, even-handedly, demanded “peace” and to “Stop the War”. No, the left said: defend democracy and the workers’ movement; support the Republican war. We helped the Republican side.

Franco was not going to stop fighting. A bland demand for “peace” and to end the fighting could only have meant the Republic giving up.

In a strike, we side with the workers and try to help them win. If the workers on strike choose to negotiate with their bosses, that’s their right, but it is not the job of socialists to agitate for negotiations We fight for solidarity and to help the strikers win.

And we certainly do not campaign to “Stop the Strike” and for the workers to negotiate a crappy deal with their bosses.

And yet when the left evades clear support for Ukraine, and instead demands negotiations and diplomacy to end the war, they are doing something very similar. The excutive of the National Education (taking their lead from the 'Stop the War' coalition) demanded negotiations around the Minsk 2 “agreement”. Leaving aside the fact that Minsk 2 is obsolete and demanding negotiations around it suggests the people who wrote the NEU motion don’t know what they are talking about, the intention of the NEU Exec (like Stop the War and the Morning Star) is clear. They think Ukraine should stop fighting and do a deal which would sign away their right to determine their own future.

In a strike that would be the behavior of a bureaucrat, or even a scab. People like Stop the War, the Morning Star and the NEU bureaucracy are playing that role towards Ukraine.

Anonymous said...

Jim Denham: If your lesson from the Spanish civil war is the imperative to “help the Republican side,” you haven’t been paying attention. Ultimately the Republican state was no less instrumental than the Francoists in strangling the Spanish revolution, as the 1937 “May Days” demonstrated along with the intense internal repression of workers militias, organisations and leaders that followed.

What’s missing in comparing Republican Spain to Ukraine is any form of independent workers interests being represented in Ukraine – let alone workers uprising. Communist parties were banned in Ukraine long before the current conflict you might recall, along with prosecution for treason of bourgeois opposition figures. Instead you have the complete subordination of workers organisations to the task of defending the “territorial integrity of Ukraine” in the interests of Ukrainian oligarchs. This includes the repression of minorities, especially but not exclusively in the Donbass, with a long running civil war to bloodily deny the Donbass region any autonomy.

Nationalism utterly defines this struggle, both Russian and Ukrainian and the victory of either state will not be a victory for the workers of either country. Neither state is qualitatively different from one another from an imperialist perspective, regardless of which definition of imperialism you apply, although clearly Russia is larger and far more powerful economically and militarily. This imbalance is somewhat offset by Western imperialist support – and the longer this war goes on the longer its character increasingly becomes that of a proxy war between Western imperialism and Russia.

You’ll recall the imperialist powers provided virtually no support for Republican Spanish state, despite it ultimately repressing the Spanish workers and despite their strategic interest in opposing European fascist rivals. The fact that these same powers are tripping over themselves to provide financial and military support to Ukraine should make you wonder why.

Its because unlike Spain – this is their kind of war, a nationalist, increasingly sectarian war in which they can bleed a regional rival (Russia), weaken a strategic rival (China), and one in which the working class is an actor only as victim and cannon fodder.

As I said, there is no side for socialists in this terrible conflict, and the main enemy really is at home, in our own western governments driving us all dangerously close to a nuclear confrontation in their great game power politics.