The US, UK, EU and Nato are showing their true colours in Gaza. Are they still on the side of angels in Ukraine, asks David Jamieson?
This article is a version of our regular Sunday Sermon. You can sign up for all our free podcasts here.
In recent years, historic developments have exposed the weaknesses of the left. The 2008 financial crisis, the 2016 ‘populist moment’, the collapse of left populism at the end of the decade, the Ukraine war and inflation all, in different ways, showed that a decline in organisational capacity had also mutated the intellectual and ideological life of the left.
Put simply, the weakness of an organisationally distinctive left – with unions and parties withered, in some cases down to nothing – also meant an left intellectually indistinct from ruling ideology. With political strategy in the doldrums, and the working class constituency for change in abeyance, moral leverage was sought by engagement with liberalism. This meant, at least on the bleeding edges of the culture war left that ascended through the 2010s, a conflict with an ill-defined and sometimes imaginary conservative right took precedence.
Banks and transnational organisations, so clearly embroiled in the Eurozone crisis, went unmolested by the anglophone liberal left. In the heart of the cataclysm, Syriza capitulated to the Troika but knuckled down on the influence of Greek Orthodox clerics. When Trump and Brexit arrived, these were understood not as the consequences of an unmooring of mass publics from political elites, but the return of atavistic chauvinism in the general public. The people themselves had plunged into a vortex of dangerous nativism, and had to be opposed, even if this meant joining a front with the EU and the US Democratic party.
Hegemonic liberalism chased-off Sanders and Corbyn, at key moments recruiting the left itself to the political assassination of their own leaders. The Corbyn project self-cannibalised in defence of the EU. Sanders surrendered to the Democratic Party establishment. At just the point where it seemed no further self-effacements were possible, another sheaf of the left surrendered to Nato – a naked instrument of western military power, fresh from the 20 year occupation of Afghanistan and the destruction of Libya. Now embroiled in Ukraine against an invading Russia, it was a force of historic progress, or at least something that should not be opposed.
This dissolute scene has been recorded here many times. But criticism of the left requires more than identifying maladies when things go badly wrong. Really, that’s the easy part. Besides, many more today would admit the calamities that befell Syriza and Corbynism when they formed an alliance with their deadliest enemies. Those who called on the west to become an arsenal of liberty in Ukraine have fallen silent. Some would even concede the evident truth that the US has used Ukrainian resistance to consolidate European power, at a terrible price to that country.
This is the crazy motion of so much modern leftism. Credulous belief in the ability of state power to produce a tolerable order, followed by cynicism and dejection when this inevitably bears rotten fruit. So, it has been with the EU, Nato, Bidenism, the Covid regime of state-intervention and much more.
It is harder to council hope in popular initiative. This is especially difficult given the dilapidated state of the workers’ movement, alluded to before. One suspects melancholic and distrustful feelings about the prospect of popular political action lend much strength to the bi-polar identification with the ruling powers of society.
It is equally necessary, and perhaps even less fashionable, to point out when something has been done right, and popular initiative has been vindicated. The British left has one achievement above all – it has helped to destroy public faith in British and western foreign policy.
It was fashionable for years to dismiss the ‘a to b marches’ of the anti-Iraq War movement of 2003. They had achieved nothing, we were told. But while some detractors soured and turned-inward, Stop the War Coalition demonstrated staying power. There is a barely recorded history of anti-imperialist agitation in Britain these last 20 years, which saw Stop the War and allies organise more huge demonstrations than anyone cares to count. A list of just some of the largest would include those against the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006, and attacks on Gaza in 2009, 2014 and 2021. These transformed the British public’s relationship to the politics of the Middle East, a key strategic location in the world system – and one where the British state had worked in the dark for so many decades.
At the same time, the movement took tough stances. It had formed just nine days after the 9/11 attacks – when the horror of those events was still fresh. The mettle to take a political stance against militarism at this moment, under enormous pressure, would be sustained. Stop the War opposed ‘interventions’ that enjoyed at least some public sympathy, such as the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the Nato bombing of Libya and, of course, the weaponisation of Ukraine in these last two years (in fact Stop the War cut a lonely figure for a long time, warning that Nato expansion could lead to conflict, in an era when conventional war in a European theatre was beyond the imagination of many).
The movement also opposed the state attack on civil liberties, most notably on the rights of journalists and whistle-blowers, as in the cases of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. It fell to the anti-war movement to resist the insidious spread of securitisation, surveillance and stigmatisation of anti-imperialist views.
The consequences of all this work can be seen today, not just in the largest Palestine solidarity marches ever on British streets, but also in much wider public opinion. The appearance of polls showing widespread support for a ceasefire within days of the Israeli assault on Gaza does not indicate that most are devotees of the Palestinian cause, or dedicated anti-militarists. But it does prove that public distrust of western policy, scepticism about the virtuous character of Britain’s global role, and sheer disbelief in war propaganda, is now widespread.
This is a serious problem for the British establishment. Along with Brexit (a not unconnected development), it is the worst injury that our permanent governing elite has sustained in the last two decades.
This is how we must understand the hysterical anger with which politicians and hacks greeted the return of the movement to the streets after 7 October. It’s even possible they thought they had the anti-war movement beaten. Corbynism can be understood, without too much exaggeration, as the energies unleashed by Stop the War cascading into the Labour party. The institutional wing of that project surrendered to establishment attacks, and it folded.
When Suella Braverman attempted a repeat performance in recent weeks, castigating ‘hate marches’ and calling for a crackdown, the movement’s leaders once again refused police requests for marches to be halted. This time, Braverman paid the price with her job. There were simply no careerists to put the thumbscrews on. Leaders of the anti-war movement are not seeking sinecures or status, and have no bridges to burn with the media-political-corporate cartels. Could there be a clearer lesson on the importance of intransigence, and a refusal to give in to smears? Or the necessity of permanent campaigning organisations, whose officers are not seeking entry to official ‘public life’?
In recent weeks, unity in the name of Palestine and in opposition to our state’s pathetic vassalage to US strategy has triumphed over differences. This unity in action is vital, but it is not enough.
As noted, many have probably silently changed their minds on some questions. Those powers hailed in Ukraine as liberators – the US, UK, Nato and the EU – are now rightly reviled for their deep, strategic complicity in the destruction of Gaza.
But we must ask: for how much longer can these extreme contradictions be borne in the mind? They are currently reconciled at the level of humanitarianism. We simply oppose all violence everywhere – a kind of pacifism waged by imperialist arms. This is an approach to war that is utterly unsuited to our time in history, when inter-power rivalry is becoming more acute around the world. It will cause adherents to swing erratically behind the institutions they periodically denounce.
It was in this mode that Andrew Fisher – Corbyn’s former policy director – called for Stop the War to be wound up just three weeks before the latest Israeli assault on Gaza commenced. He did so off the back of a vote at the Trade Union Congress to demand the military reconquest of Ukraine. In Germany, the Fridays for Future environmentalist youth movement first demanded their state mobilise against Russia, then distanced themselves from one-time icon Greta Thunberg, over the latter’s call for a ceasefire in Palestine.
Beneath the surface moralism of this politics lies a fear of cutting the cord with statal liberalism. In the political imagination of many on the left, victory is when liberalism finally makes good on its promises. Democracy, freedom, respect for human rights and unlimited self-expression can transmute from slogans to reality, with sufficient prompting and a united front against sundry threats – from climate change to Putin and the far right. This is a doomed perspective, and ultimately self-destructive.
While building an anti-war movement that is broad enough to contain people with confused and contradictory political attitudes, it is also necessary that a core is developed which sees clearly the extent and nature of the threats that confront us. It is surely now time to put behind us the fantasy politics of recent years. Our time is simply too dangerous to indulge them any further.