Ukraine, war and the British left

September 5, 2022
Enough is enough mural
Enough is Enough campaign mural in Morecambe, Lancashire. Photo: @eiecampaign/Twitter

Anti*Capitalist Resistance activist Phil Hearse spoke to Green Left’s Federico Fuentes about debates on the British left over Ukraine and the rise of Enough is Enough. Hearse is joint author of Creeping Fascism and System Crash.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion caused disorientation on the British left. Why was this the case?

I think disorientation stems from the complexity of what is happening — that Ukraine’s just defensive struggle for self-determination intersects with inter-imperialist conflict and the push for war against Russia and China by right-wing politicians and the military in the West.

This war is an absolute catastrophe, for Ukraine, Russia and the world economy. It is hard to overestimate the sheer viciousness and cruelty of what the Russian army has been doing. It is a continuation of what Putin did in Chechnya and Syria — massive air, artillery and missile attacks on housing, hospitals, shopping centres and schools, with huge costs to the civilian population. Thousands of civilians have been killed and maimed. Many thousands have suffered irreparable loss.

Whatever the background to the conflict, the primary responsibility for the war lies with Putin and the small, extreme right-wing nationalist coterie which surrounds him in the Kremlin.

The arguments in the British left, echoed in all English-speaking countries, have been mainly about NATO and sending weapons to Ukraine.

In my opinion, if you say Ukrainian people have the right to self-defense, then they have the right to get arms from wherever they can — and the only realistic candidate is NATO. You cannot say this is a war of national self-determination but Ukraine has no right to effective weaponry to resist.

But opposition to arming Ukraine has been the position of the [British] Communist Party, New Left Review, the Socialist Workers Party and the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition. However, this is no longer an urgent question. Ukraine has already got massive amounts of arms, mainly from the United States.

Then there are those in the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign who don’t want to raise the issue of NATO at all, a big mistake in my opinion. The right wing in Europe and the US are trying to push this war into becoming an all-out proxy war against Russia. The new head of the British army, Lieutenant General Patrick Sanders, told an international conference — hosted by the army’s think tank — that the British military must prepare for a land war against Russia!

Could you expand on your view of NATO and its role in the world today?

Today there is a push for NATO to “go global”, to become the framework for confronting China, not just Russia. Deepening militarisation, hugely increased defence budgets, pouring US Navy resources into the Pacific and more and more US soldiers in Europe — is the order of the day, and much of it coordinated through NATO.

US political theorist William I Robinson calls this a constituent part of “militarised accumulation”, by which he means the way that defence, paramilitary and police expenditure, together with its complementary surveillance of populations — deeply integrated with high tech firms like Apple and even Facebook — is becoming a much bigger part of capital accumulation and profit.

Militarised accumulation is linked to the new ideology of imperialism. The “End of History” theorist Francis Fukuyama has re-emerged to define the mainstream theory of this new period. Unsurprisingly, it is “autocracy versus democracy”, which of course closely parallels the “dictatorship versus democracy” ideology of the first Cold War of 1950‒90.

Like the first version, this new version of capitalist democracy has its contradictions and problems. For example, the world’s most repressive state, Saudi Arabia, is put in the category of democracy, because it’s “our” ally and a major oil producer. By contrast, Cuba is put in the category of “autocracy”, despite its amazing record of pro-working class social achievements, at home and abroad.

The floods in Pakistan show once again that the main crises and conflicts of our time cannot be summed up as “democracy versus autocracy”, but by the need for radical action to solve the problems of the climate crisis, poverty, hunger, war and the growing chasm between the living standards of the global elite and the mass of humanity. The structure of the latter is brilliantly summed up by William I Robinson and Yusef K Baker in “Savage Inequalities”.

Western powers, including especially Britain, have provided planes, weapons and targeting expertise for Saudi Arabia’s sickening war against the Huti rebels in Yemen, which has been every bit as brutal as Russia’s war in Ukraine, probably more so. And yet there is almost nothing in the media about this. A 2021 UNICEF report puts the number of dead in Yemen at 377,000 — probably 400,000 by now and a similar number wounded. Yet, there is no mention of this and no outrage from Western “democrats”.

Against the pro-NATO ideology of “democracy versus autocracy”, socialists have to explain that the world is riven by inter-imperialist competition, between the United States, China and Russia — but with two important qualifications.

First is that the military posture of China is overwhelmingly defensive, designed above all to fight a defensive war against the US along its own coastline and the South China Sea. There are no Chinese aircraft carriers along the coast of California, and China is the one major nuclear power that has maintained the doctrine of “no first use” of nuclear weapons since the 1960s.

At the same time, China is an autocracy: a state-controlled capitalist regime, with heavy-handed and brutal repression, exemplified by the mass imprisonment and cultural genocide being carried out against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province.

In the 1990s, the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, put forward the idea of a “common European homeland”, in which neither Russia nor Europe would be members of a military alliance, but instead combine to create peace and prosperity throughout the continent.

After all, NATO’s military opponent, the Warsaw Pact — comprising Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Poland — had dissolved. Communism in Russia had fallen, so what purpose did NATO have?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has solved the conundrum of NATO’s purpose, and drawn the Europeans tighter to US dominance.

US presidents of that period, George Bush snr and Bill Clinton, would never accept the common European homeland idea because NATO puts the US front and centre in European discussions about the economy and security.

Instead, through NATO, the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and World Bank, the West, with the US at its head, imposed a “revanchist” settlement on Russia. In the economy it was “shock therapy” privatisation, and in security it was to push NATO right up to Russia’s borders.

These were the circumstances which led to the re-emergence of Great Russian nationalism as a major political force.

Finally, what can you tell us about the new initiative, Enough is Enough, and its significance for the British left?

What has underlain the emergence of the Enough is Enough trade union propaganda and campaigning alliance, is the growing upswing of trade union struggles and national strikes, led by the RMT [National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers] rail workers, closely followed by the CWU [Communication Workers Union] postal workers, local government workers, barristers, refuse workers and many others. Trade unions are back, with a vengeance.

Behind this is the massive cost of living crisis. Inflation is soaring past 10%, with the retail price index going up by 15%. Rents, especially for young people, are unaffordable, taking 50% or more of disposable incomes in London.

And now energy prices are literally exploding, with millions having to pay upwards of £4500 for gas and electricity next year. Millions will have to choose between eating and heating their homes, which is vital in a British winter.

The consequences will be incredibly damaging for the poor, children, pensioners and disabled people. Food banks are now in crisis, with food donations diminishing rapidly. And charity organisations are suffocating under the torrent of new clients.

Incoming Tory Prime Minister, Liz Truss — elected by just 125,000 Tories out of a population of 70 million — says she will not give “handouts” but will cut taxes, mainly benefiting the rich and the well-to-do. She also plans to introduce legislation banning strikes in public services.

RMT rail workers general secretary Mick Lynch has emerged as the main spokesperson of this new wave of militant trade unionism and the Enough is Enough campaign. He has thereby become the main spokesperson of the millions of the poor and most exploited. There are hard times and harsh struggles ahead.

[This is an abridged version of a longer interview, which can be read at LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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