Ukraine and the anti-war movement

Anti- war protest in Italy (Photo: CC/Mænsard vokser)

Eight months ago the world woke up to the news of Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. Since then, in addition to the horrendous consequences for the people of Ukraine, and for the Russian soldiers dying on its battlefields, the war has had repercussions for the whole world. It is contributing to increases in food and energy prices, and the looming world recession. It has also ramped up global tensions. Fears of it leading to military escalation and even the use of a nuclear weapon have grown.

Like most countries, however, Britain has yet to see the resurgence of mass anti-war protests. This does not mean that the war is unimportant to people. For example, a YouGov poll in June showed that 74% of people were ‘worried’ about the Russia/Ukraine situation. The same poll showed that there was majority support for the British government continuing its current policy by ‘sending additional weaponry and supplies to Ukraine’. However, a different poll, conducted by IPSOS in October, showed a much more sceptical attitude among young people, with only 45% of 16-34-year-olds supporting the British government’s backing of Ukraine.

Across all age groups, a majority are opposed to any increased military measures, with only 34% supporting airstrikes against Russian targets in Ukraine, and only 27% supporting sending troops in. Clearly, there are varying views on the issues among different sections of the population, but broadly the dominant mood is huge sympathy for the people of Ukraine for the nightmare they are suffering; but combined with a fear of escalation and opposition to steps which might lead to it. All of these concerns, however, are not currently to the fore in most people’s minds, but rather a background hum of anxiety. The immediate nightmare of the cost of living crisis, particularly for the working class, dominates all other issues.

Nonetheless, these polls show the potential for a mass anti-war movement to develop very quickly. In particular if, as has been raised, Putin was to use a so-called ‘tactical’ nuclear weapon, huge protests for peace would be likely to quickly erupt. While US imperialism and the British capitalist class would undoubtedly try to use such a movement to bolster their own positions, the dominant mood would be opposition to all war and, in particular, opposition to the threat of nuclear escalation.

Opportunity missed

War is therefore one of the many issues around which movements could develop, and is likely to play a part in the struggle of the working class to create its own political voice. Already, in this war, opportunities have been missed to take steps in that direction. At the start of the war, eleven left Labour MPs had signed a very limited statement issued by the Stop the War Coalition. They were threatened by Sir Keir Starmer with having the whip withdrawn and, joining Jeremy Corbyn, unable to sit in parliament as Labour MPs. This was Starmer’s pro-capitalist New Labour, taking advantage of the war in Ukraine to inflict further defeats on the remnants of the Labour left. Shamefully, however, the eleven MPs immediately retreated and withdrew their names. John McDonnell MP then went further and withdrew from speaking at a Stop the War rally saying that “My response is that people are dying on the streets of Ukrainian cities. This is not the time to be distracted by political arguments here. Now is the time to unite”. (Labour List, 2 March 2022)

But the worst possible thing that the workers’ movement could do – for the working class of Ukraine, Russia or Britain – is to ‘unite’ behind, which means uncritically support, our capitalist class. If, instead of capitulating to Starmer’s pressure, the eleven had stood firm and had the whip withdrawn that would have immediately created a block of twelve left-wing MPs, who could have put a socialist position on issues relating to the war. While the Labour shadow chancellor was calling for the Tories to step up deportations, such a grouping could have taken up the issue of refugees, for example, by demanding, unlike Starmer, that asylum be offered to all those fleeing wars, including Ukraine but also Yemen, Afghanistan, and the many other conflicts. They could have made clear, however, that it should be the rich that fund the policy. Early on in the war Tory ministers rhetorically called for the housing of Ukrainian refugees in the Russian oligarchs’ mansions. That didn’t happen of course. But a group of left MPs could have taken that and demanded more – why stop at mansions owned by Russian oligarchs? Why not expropriate the empty mansions of all the super-rich in order to house refugees and the homeless?

Nor would twelve left MPs have been limited to issues relating to the war. For example, they could have vociferously campaigned in support of the growing strike wave, and demanded nationalisation of the energy companies, with no compensation except for small shareholders in genuine need. They, obviously, would have been on the picket lines – and have potentially given some backbone to other Labour MPs to do the same in defiance of Starmer’s order to stay away. In the current situation, with the Tory government in catastrophic crisis, the worst fall in living standards in seventy years, and increasing trade union militancy, even a small block of left MPs could have transformed the situation. It would have attracted widespread union support and created the basis for the foundation of a new mass party of the working class.

That opportunity has been missed, but there will be countless others in the next period, which the Socialist Party will fight for the workers’ movement to grasp. There are lessons to be learnt on this issue from the last mass anti-war movement in Britain. Twenty years ago, in response to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the impending invasion of Iraq, Britain – along with countries around the world – was shaken by the biggest anti-war movement in its history. On 15 February 2003 up to two million marched through the streets of London, combined with countless small protests in towns and villages across the country. The organisation which found itself in the leadership of that movement in Britain was the Stop the War Coalition.

Lessons from last time

The leadership of Stop the War was dominated by socialists, particularly the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), but also involved the Communist Party and others. The Socialist Party had three party members on the 50-plus steering committee, but we were not part of the inner core of officers who took day-to-day decisions. The latter overwhelmingly considered themselves socialists, but they failed to raise a socialist programme themselves and tried to prevent others, particularly the Socialist Party, from doing so.

This was at a time when Tony Blair’s New Labour government was leading the drive to war in Britain. Different socialist organisations, including the Socialist Party and from 1999 the Socialist Workers’ Party, were working together in the Socialist Alliance to try and begin to offer an electoral alternative to Blairism. The movement against the war was an important opportunity which could have led to the foundation of a mass socialist and anti-war party.

The Socialist Party moved a motion at the Socialist Alliance ‘Liaison Committee’ in September 2001 which pointed out that, “while historically mass workers parties, including the Labour Party, under pressure from below, have had the authority and social weight to stop or at least hinder the war plans of the ruling class, that is not the situation today” after Tony Blair’s transformation of the Labour Party into New Labour.

“The war drive”, we went on, “once again confirms that a vacuum of working class political representation exists in Britain which, if it has the right approach, the Socialist Alliance could, if it draws in other forces, begin to partially fill”. We concluded that “the Socialist Alliance, therefore, should participate fully in, and initiate where necessary, anti-war activity, but at all times should seek to involve wider forces, particularly from the trade union movement. In the anti-war movement the Socialist Alliance, while clearly raising the case for socialism, should also promote an inclusive approach”.

Unfortunately, this was not the approach taken; in particular, the case for socialism was not clearly raised. Repeatedly, the SWP and others voted down the Socialist Party’s proposal that the then chair of the Socialist Alliance, Socialist Party member Dave Nellist, be allowed to speak at anti-war events – from the initial launch rallies, to the CND demonstration against the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. This was not only a question of preventing Socialist Party members from having a platform, but also a tendency not to have any speakers who were raising the case for socialism or the need for a new party of the working class. The SWP then abandoned the Socialist Alliance all together, having first forced through a new highly-centralised constitution for it – a reflection of their ‘rule or ruin’ approach. (See What Happened To The Socialist Alliance?, in Socialism Today No.254, December-January 2021/22) An important opportunity was squandered.  Instead, pro-capitalist politicians were given a platform at Stop the War events.

Charles Kennedy, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, was on the platform of the gigantic February 2003 anti-war demonstration, for example, but there was nobody there speaking on behalf of a socialist organisation. Charles Kennedy was able to use the platform to help give the pro-capitalist Liberal Democrats an anti-war, radical ‘sheen’. Yet, as the Socialist Party had predicted, he and his party went on to support the war once it had begun. The real character of the Liberal Democrats was shown clearly to everyone seven years later when they joined a coalition government with the Tories, which implemented brutal austerity. They have yet to recover electorally.

However, for a period they were able to gain credibility as a result of the platform their leader was given by Stop the War. Of course among the anti-war demonstrators will have been many Liberal Democrat and even Tory voters. However, the goal of socialists leading the movement should have been to have explained the roots of the war in the nature of capitalism and imperialism – and that the fight against war is therefore linked to the struggle for socialism. Instead, in order to try and accommodate establishment figures – who had belatedly and temporarily come on board only because of the movement’s popularity – the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition were prepared to abandon even the semblance of a class approach.

At the conference convened by the STWC after the 15 February demonstration, but before the invasion of Iraq had begun, the officers’ original declaration stated that “it is possible to resolve the present international crisis by exclusively peaceful means in line with proposals made by many states and eminent personalities around the world”, with speakers referring to proposals for further UN resolutions being made by French president Jacques Chirac and Russia’s Vladimir Putin! This was taken out after objections from the floor, including from Socialist Party representatives, but it shows how the leadership of the STWC was bending to opportunist pressures.

There was another side to this failure to take a class approach to the question of war, which was a tendency to refuse to criticise the opponents of British imperialism, even when they had a reactionary character. The SWP, for example, refused to condemn the 9/11 bombings of the World Trade Centre. This approach was sometimes reflected in Stop the War material. One press statement that ended up being circulated, despite attempts by the Socialist Party to get it withdrawn, called for ‘unconditional support for the Iraqi resistance’. The Socialist Party fully supported the right of the Iraqi people to resist, including with arms, the US and British invasion of their country, just as we support the right of the Ukrainian people to do so against Putin’s invasion. But that does not equate to giving unconditional support to all the forces – which included Al Qaida – that made up the resistance in Iraq, any more than it means giving support to the Ukrainian government today.

Nothing has been learnt

During the Iraq war, these mistakes were used to attack and undermine Stop the War. But unfortunately, their leadership has learnt nothing, while its ability to mobilise large numbers has been completely eroded. The statements of Stop the War on the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been extremely weak. The initial statement, published when the war began in February, and from which the eleven Labour left MPs withdrew their names, did not have a shred of a class approach. By limiting itself to calling for a “diplomatic solution” which “addresses Russia’s security concerns”, it allowed the Labour right to attack it for being ‘pro-Putin’. Why refer to ‘Russia’s security concerns’ as if Russia is an indivisible whole? Socialists do not give a damn about the ‘security concerns’ of Putin, on the contrary we want to see him overthrown – not by a foreign power – but by a mass movement of the Russian working class and poor. This is the way that his warmongering could be halted.

Of course, we are concerned with fighting for the rights of all peoples to self-determination; not least being able to live free of the threat of invasion by foreign armies. Yet the Stop the War statement makes no mention of this vital issue. Putin justified the invasion of Ukraine by launching a broadside against Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Russian revolution, for supporting the right to self-determination for Ukraine. This has not stopped Putin, however, cynically claiming that the invasion was meant to defend the national rights of the Russian-speaking peoples of Donetsk and Luhansk, where war has been raging since 2014.

An anti-war movement worth its salt would be fighting to build a mass movement which had inscribed on its banner the rights of all nationalities of the region to determine their own future, including the populations of the Donetsk and Luhansk statelets, free from the threat of military aggression.

Instead, Stop the War initially called for a “diplomatic solution” as advanced by the “French and German governments”! No statement written since goes beyond this approach. An end to the war is desirable for all those suffering its consequences. But looking towards ‘diplomacy’ by capitalist governments is a dead end for any anti-war movement.

The causes of war

Wars are not caused simply by the whims of particularly despotic rulers like Putin. War is the inevitable consequence of an international capitalist system based on profit, exploitation and oppression, where the national rights of smaller or weaker nations can be trampled into the dirt for the short-term interests of the ‘great powers’. Increasing national tensions and wars are an inevitable feature of this era of capitalist crisis.

Putin’s gangster-capitalist regime was formed in the period after the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe. The Stalinist Soviet Union was a brutal bureaucratic dictatorship which bore no resemblance to genuine socialism. Nonetheless, it was based on a distorted form of a planned economy, and for a whole historical period presided over economic growth. However, that reached its limits, as the gargantuan bureaucracy at the top became an absolute fetter, unable to develop a modern economy. But its collapse, and the restoration of capitalism, led to a disastrous economic fall.

From 1991 to 1994 average life expectancy dropped by five years as a result of a catastrophic fall in living standards for the majority. Meanwhile, a few oligarchs in Russia, Ukraine and every part of what had been the Soviet Union looted the state’s resources. Putin and his coterie, utterly incapable of developing the economy, were the gangsters who clawed their way to the top.

Russia has gone from being at the centre of an economy half the size of the US to be one-thirteenth of the size. It is in reality a very weak and primitive economy – around the size of Belgium and the Netherlands combined – and completely dominated by the production of oil, gas and raw materials.

Putin’s dream of conquering Ukraine was linked to his desperate need to try and counter his regime’s inability to develop a modern capitalist economy. In the era of the Soviet Union, there was heavy investment in the industrialisation of Ukraine, particularly of defence manufacturing. In addition, about 85% of Russian gas exports to Europe were shipped through Ukraine’s pipeline network. Successfully conquering it was never remotely realisable but, if Putin’s fantasy had been achieved, would have had considerable economic benefits for his regime. At the same time, forming a ‘land bridge’ to the Crimea peninsula is important to the military interests of the Russian state.

US imperialism and the other NATO powers’ opposition is also motivated entirely by the defence of their own capitalist interests. All have willingly fought for their share of the profits available from Putin’s Russia, regardless of the dictatorial character of his regime. The ‘Laundromat’ of the City of London, of course, has focused on sucking in and ‘cleaning’ the money of the Russian oligarchs. Had Putin been prepared to remain, as he was initially, subservient to US imperialism, that situation would have continued. However, now Putin is attempting to assert Russia’s imperialist interests in its ‘near abroad’, the Western powers have been forced to act.

It is true that there are differences between them, which can grow as the war drags on, but none are remotely concerned with the interests of the Ukrainian people. Stop the War pointed to the German government’s supposed ‘diplomatic solution’ yet its reaction to the war has been to use it to justify a €100 billion military spending programme, as the German capitalist class takes advantage of the world situation to justify rearmament in order to be able to defend their own interests in this increasingly multipolar world.

Far from looking to capitalist politicians for a solution, socialists should be emphasising that anti-war activists should have no trust in any of them – whether it is Putin, Biden, Macron or Zelensky, or any of the three Tory prime ministers who have held office during the period of the Ukrainian war. Nor, come to that, can they have any trust in the capitalist politicians at the head of the Labour Party.

Starmer’s ‘non-negotiable’ support for NATO

A central element of Starmer’s scorched-earth destruction of the remnants of Corbynism has been his headlong rush to wrap New Labour in the union jack, and slavishly support the warmongering of the Tory government. In Starmer’s speech to Labour Party conference a key paragraph was where he declared: “That’s why we had to rip antisemitism out by its roots. Why we had to show our support for NATO is non-negotiable. Show we want business to prosper. Shed unworkable policies. Country first, party second”.

Alleged ‘antisemitism’ is code from the Labour leadership for ripping the Labour left ‘out by its roots’. It is no coincidence that Starmer then tied this immediately to support for US imperialism – which is what he means by NATO – and for the defence of the ruling elite, which is what he means by ‘the country first’. Finally, ‘shedding unworkable policies’ means any policies that are in the interests of the working class majority, and will face opposition from the capitalists.

This year’s Labour Party conference also passed a motion which backed Starmer’s position on the Ukraine war.  At this stage, that motion would also get support from many workers, who want to show solidarity with people of Ukraine. However, in reality, there is a qualitative difference between workers’ solidarity action – like the refusal of dockers to unload Russian oil – and Starmer lining up behind the British capitalist class and US imperialism.

In the early days of New Labour Mark One, it claimed to have an ‘ethical foreign policy’. Then too many workers had sympathy with the idea that New Labour wanted to carry out military interventions in Kosovo and elsewhere for humanitarian reasons. That illusion was entirely shattered, however, by Blair’s participation in the brutal invasion and occupation of Iraq, with all of its horrendous consequences. Starmer’s speech to Labour Party conference was designed, above all, to reassure British capitalism that he would do their bidding at home and abroad as prime minister. In this increasingly conflict-torn world that is likely to include participating in further bloody imperialist adventures.

The new generation entering struggle under the next government will therefore be compelled to fight against war as well as climate change and – of course – in defence of their living conditions. Studying the experiences of those who fought before them will play an important role in ensuring those struggles are successful. The most important lesson is that the only way to stop climate change and to end wars, is for the working class and poor to overthrow the capitalist system and to build a democratic socialist world.

Marxists should take part in, and fight to build, every immediate struggle against capitalist wars and environmental destruction, but if we do not strive at all times to link each struggle to the need for socialism, we would be betraying those movements and ultimately be consigning them to defeat. If however, as the Socialist Party will, we fight to raise the banner of socialism high, it will win mass support as the only way out from the horrors of capitalism.

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November 2022