Only an Independent & Progressive Foreign Policy Can Avert WWIII

Mass action – of which the demonstration on February 25 was but the start – is the only way to get anti-imperialist principles accepted by all parties in this conflict. It is consistent with the realities of the situation and the only course that holds out any prospect of establishing a durable peace in eastern Europe, argues Andrew Murray

The anti-imperialist movement in Britain is clearly facing dramatic new challenges. The high degree of unity achieved in relation to the Iraq invasion above all, which allowed it to expand its reach throughout society, not least in the Labour Party, is a thing of the past.

The war in Ukraine, begun in 2014 by the NATO-nationalist coup against Ukraine’s President and intensified – massively, illegally and destructively – by the Russian invasion of a year ago, has crystallised differences which had been simmering for some years, particularly in relation to the Syrian civil war.

This has been exacerbated by Keir Starmer’s drive not only to restore the Labour Party to imperialism’s good graces after the aberrant Corbyn period but also to prohibit any dissent at all on the issue.  MPs who question NATO’s role, for example, do so on pain of losing their place in the Parliamentary Labour Party and thus ultimately their jobs.

In relation to the Ukraine war three positions have arisen, broadly on the left, among forces which were aligned on Iraq and generally on the Afghan occupation too.

The first, which has a purchase on a minority in the anti-war movement but very little in society at large, is supportive for Putin’s Russia. It endorses the rationale for the invasion of Ukraine, pins the entirety of the blame for the crisis on NATO and the Kyiv government and, while scarcely able to deny the oligarchic capitalist nature of contemporary Russia bridles at any suggestion that it is imperialist.

Here is not the place to address detailed issues of political economy, but it is a feature of this tendency that it undertakes no analysis at all of the nature of Russia today, when a serious understanding of world politics mandates such an effort at comprehension as imperative. 

Ukraine aside, the activities of the Wagner mercenary group in several African states, operating as an arm of the Russian state to secure access to natural resources, should give pause for thought.

This position does not stand for peace unless it be on terms which constitute a Russian victory.  It derives its strength from global hostility to the role of the USA and its close allies over the post-Cold War period of unipolar hegemony, or even longer. 

Anti-imperialism here means opposition to Washington and London, no more and no less, whatever other changes may emerge in the world. This argument draws strength from the understandable outrage at the hypocrisy of NATO warmongers calling out Russia for the sins they have themselves perpetrated in one part of the world after another to excess and beyond.

An opposite position likewise opposes peace unless it be on terms signalling a comprehensive Russian defeat, which would obviously mean a victory not just for Ukraine but for the NATO powers which are supplying and directing its war effort.

That is of course the policy of the British government and also of the Labour Party. Some on the left and in the labour movement have also embraced it for one reason or another. Obviously, it is a policy that has significant support in British opinion as a whole, unlike the pro-Putin camp.

This embraces a section of the left, perhaps exemplified by individuals like Peter Tatchell and Paul Mason, who invariably find themselves more-or-less aligned with the British ruling class on international questions, whatever dissent they allow themselves on domestic arrangements.

They have never been anti-imperialist by any reckoning, including their own. Or at least, they oppose Russian imperialism but deny the existence of the British or American varieties. They are no different to those who described opponents of the First World War as the “Kaiser’s agents”.

They are buttressed however by those genuinely horrified by the Russian invasion – by its evident illegality, by the barbarities it has occasioned, by the plight of Ukrainian refugees. A robust anti-imperialism able to shape political debate needs to take account of such understandable sentiments.

Finally, there are elements in the labour movement which use any crisis to push for more spending on arms, leading to the shameful TUC resolution last year pledging a campaign, in the midst of austerity and strike action to defend living standards, to increase the arms budget.

Many unions of course reject this approach and, unlike Labour MPs, have been able to stand with the anti-war movement.

This constellation of pro-war forces have recurred throughout the history of the British labour and anti-war movements over the last century and more bringing together chauvinists and humanitarians, social-imperialists and pragmatists in an alliance which, objectively, supports the war policy of the capitalist class. The art is to divide it.

Nor is it new for there to be a reflux in the shape of sectarian posturing, of taking positions which have the capacity to shock but not to mobilise. The movement against the Gulf War of 1991 had to endure such fissures from the far left, for example.

It was a strength of the movements against the Afghan and Iraq wars that equivalent factions urging slogans like “victory to the Taliban” or “support Saddam” were entirely marginalised. Striking such attitudes may gratify a small minority but it does nothing to actually pressure the warmongers.

The mainstream of the anti-war movement, represented by Stop the War and CND, believes that imperialism is best challenged under the current circumstances by fighting for peace in Ukraine, by demanding an end to the war, a halt to the massive shipment of arms, and an end to NATO expansion.

These demands can build broad support across British society, the more so if, as looks likely, the conflict becomes bogged down in prolonged attritional warfare. There are already signs of such an approach gaining traction in the USA. Peace is becoming a more attractive option for societies themselves mired in economic crisis.

Moreover, this policy aligns with huge slices of world opinion, from China to South Africa, Brazil to India. These states and many more have refrained from any condemnation of Russia’s actions, still less from joining in NATO’s sanctions, even if overt approval is almost non-existent.

China has now gone further and started to outline a policy to bring the war to an end, something the US and British governments are clearly deeply opposed to.

In fact, the outlines of peace remain relatively straightforward, based on sovereignty, self-determination and security. Sovereignty for Ukraine, democratic self-determination for its minorities and security arrangements that work for everyone in the region, which means they cannot be based upon NATO.

These are clear anti-imperialist principles. Getting them accepted by a Russian government that may still dream of subordinating Ukraine to its own power, by Ukrainian nationalists looking to reconquer Crimea and by Washington and London bent on prolonging the conflict to weaken Russia and eventually encircling the far more formidable China will not be easy. It will depend on mass action, of which the demonstration on February 25 was but the start.

But it is the only course true to the anti-war movement’s traditions, consistent with the realities of the situation and holding out any prospect of establishing a durable peace in eastern Europe.

Andrew Murray is vice-president of the Stop the War Coalition and its former chair

Photo: Grace Cowan

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