On 4th August, 1914, the German SPD – a mass party which was committed to Marxism – voted for war credits, enabling Germany to enter the First World War. The vote was almost unanimous. Although 17 SPD MPs expressed private opposition to the war credits, only Karl Liebknecht voted against them, and even he abstained on the original vote. (Rosa Luxemburg would have taken a similar position to Liebknecht, if the German parliament had allowed women to be MPs).
On 25th July, just 10 days before the Bundestag vote, the SPD executive issued a statement demanding that “the German government exercise its influence on the Austrian government to maintain peace; and in the event that the shameful war cannot be prevented, that it refrain from belligerent intervention.”
But when push came to shove, the largest party of the European Left collapsed under the prevailing hysteria for war. When Lenin read about the vote, he assumed that it was a forgery published by the German general staff.
The SPD justified its vote for war as follows: “It is for us to ward off this danger and to safeguard the culture and independence of our country. Thus we honour what we have always pledged: in the hour of danger, we shall not desert our Fatherland.”
In retrospect, many see this vote by the SPD deputies as an aberration, but it is one of many examples of committed Leftists being firmly against war – right until the moment that war breaks out, when they fall in behind their own ruling class. I feel that the current clamour for weapons for Ukraine is part of a similar process.
I was politicised by the anti-war movement and have been having these discussions all my adult life. While debating Putin’s invasion, I am experiencing some arguments which are worryingly familiar. In this article, I want to go through some of the most common arguments for sending weapons and show how they fit a pattern that has always been used by our rulers and media to justify imperialist war.
“Putin is the new Hitler”
One of the most common arguments for sending Western arms to Ukraine is that we must stop the “new Hitler”. Comparing your opponent to Hitler invokes Godwin’s Law and makes it difficult for anyone to seriously question what you are saying. No one with an ounce of humanity wants a return to Concentration Camps. If Putin is the new Hitler, he must be stopped, even if it means allying with our own rulers.
Around a year ago, I wrote an article which contained the following: “Try putting “new Hitler“ into a search engine. Apart from Putin, you’ll find results for Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Egypts 1950s president Gamal Abdul Nasser, Muammar Gadaffi, Saddam Hussein, a coach of the Independence Community College football team, and many more.” Interestingly, if you try a similar exercise today, the first few pages will be almost entirely full of articles about Putin.
In 1999, Germany took part in the illegal NATO bombing of Serbia – the first external deployment of the German military since the Second World War. Then, as now, Germany had a belligerent Green Foreign minister. At a special party conference, Joschka Fischer justified the bombing with the slogan “Nie wieder Auschwitz” (Auschwitz never again). Instead, thousands of civilians were killed or injured by NATO bombs.
The comparison with Fascism is used to shut down debate. All opponents of war are dismissed as Putin-apologists, just as in the past we were accused of being apologists for Saddam. For example, in 2002, an article in the left wing magazine Mother Jones argued: “The left-wing sectarians who promote ‘NO SANCTIONS, NO BOMBING’ don’t want the US, or anyone, to lift a finger on behalf of the Kurds.” The implication is that US imperialism could be a force for good, if only we let it.
“An illegal invasion must be punished”
On April 2nd, 1982, Argentinian troops invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands. Three days later, Margaret Thatcher sent a British Task Force to the South Atlantic. The British media was overwhelmed by patriotic fervour.
Before the war, Thatcher was well behind in the polls with 27% support. In May 1982, support for the Tories rose to 51%. Some have argued that the “Falklands Factor” was responsible for her 1983 election victory, and thus, indirectly, for the defenestration of British living conditions which followed.
Thatcher was significantly helped by the supine behaviour of Labour leader Michael Foot. Foot, a veteran peace campaigner, made a bellicose parliamentary speech in defence of war, and supported the Task Force, saying “I know a Fascist when I see one” (Godwin’s law again).
Similarly, the immediate justification of the USA’s first Gulf War against Iraq was not to protect US imperial ambitions in the oil region, but Saddam Hussein’s illegal invasion of Kuwait. Shortly before the invasion, Iraq had also murdered the Observer reporter Farzad Bazoft.
Terrible acts, but not the reason the US sent troops. Lawrence Koth, former US assistant defence secretary, openly said: “If Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn’t give a damn.” Until the Gulf War, the US had been arming Saddam in his fight against Iran.When NATO poses as a knight on a shining charger, it is usually to solve problems which they caused in the first place.
The point of these comparisons is not to retroactively justify military adventures by right wing governments, but to point out that when our rulers say that they are defending national autonomy, they are not to be trusted. We cannot expect the people responsible for the My Lai massacre, the assassination of Pierre Lumumba and the overthrow of Salvador Allende to act outside their narrow imperial interests.
“Opponents of war are marching with Nazis”
This is the most serious allegation, as there is a grain of truth in it. Politicians like Oskar Lafontaine have made explicit overtures to the far right. At the recent anti-war demo organised by Lafontaine’s wife Sahra Wagenknecht. Wagenknecht said that AfD flags and symbols were unwanted, but her response was insufficient, based on the mistaken belief that the Left can win over AfD voters by refusing to criticise the increasing Nazi control of the party.
It has been a scandal that the first big German demonstrations against delivering weapons have been organised by people who have been ambiguous about excluding the far right. The political Left should take much of the blame for not building a serious anti-imperialist pole, while the German government has doubled the military budget and let inflation hit double figures for the first time since 1948.
People who are struggling to survive are angry. 44% of Germans oppose the decision of the political centre to deliver weapons (as opposed to 41% who support it). These people are open to political leadership from Left and Right. This is why it was important that people from my LINKE branch in Wedding and others attended Saturday’s rally with a banner and placards saying “With AfD and co there is no peace.”
This is not the first time that the far right has tried to appropriate social movements for themselves. In 2003, when Germany’s Red-Green government introduced its attack on the social state (Agenda 2010), Nazis were able in individual cases to march to the front of the demos. Something similar happened with the protests against globalisation. Encouraged by some Spiegel columnists, right wingers tried to hijack the movement against TTIP.
In both cases, the reaction of the political Left was not to hand the protests over to the far right, but to build a movement which rejected right wing ideas, culminating in trade union backed demonstrations which mobilised half a million people against Agenda 2010 and 250,000 against TTIP.
“There is no alternative to uniting with our rulers”
David Jamieson makes the perceptive point that: “the general demoralisation of the left, and its loss of belief in making a meaningful challenge to established power hangs over the entire debate about the war … The retreat of parts of the left behind their own states’ policy in the west was facilitated by setbacks, such as the collapse of the Sanders and Corbynite projects.”
It is not that Leftists want NATO and the military industrial complex to (literally) fight their battles for them. Rather, the current mood of pessimism means that some do not see an alternative. Somebody must do something, and if we lack the power, it will have to be someone who does. But the idea that we must do something, no matter what, is not always the best solution. If your house is on fire, you don’t help the situation by pouring petrol onto the blaze.
Supporters of weapons delivery insist that we must take a side between Putin and NATO. One of the most articulate proponents of this argument us Andrei Belibou, in a recent theleftberlin article which asks: “How can Putin be “fully responsible” for a war that has a double character? How can Ukrainians engage in “legitimate self-defense in a proxy war“? ”.
But it is quite normal to expect that different people act through different motivations. This is why Liz Fekete is quite right to ask the following rhetorical questions: “Could it be that the war is many things at once: a heroic fight for self-determination on the part of the Ukrainian people caught in the crosshairs of empire: a cynical proxy war on the part of NATO?”
There is a – I would argue naive – belief that NATO will deliver heavy weapons without conditions, that Ukraine will liberate itself, free of any interference from the West. Appeals for weapons are not being made to workers’ collectives, but to the military industrial complex. Their interests are not our interests.
“This is about human rights, not social politics”
NATO and the German military are not benign forces for peace which we can use for our own purposes. They are a central part of Western neoliberalism.
Early globalisation supporter Thomas Friedman explained: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist – McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
Liz Fekete sees a link between the militarism which supported early neoliberalism and the current situation: “where once we had Samuel Huntingdon’s ideological framework of a clash of civilisations (between Islam and the West) to justify the ‘war on terror’. Today we have that clash as between Russia and the West … It justifies NATO’s rapid and vast intervention, the introduction of sophisticated lethal weaponry and the sharing of battlefield intelligence.”
There are not 2 NATOs – one which benevolently helps oppressed countries, and another which overthrows governments in the Global South, and invades other countries at will. A NATO which feels empowered by the Left calling for military intervention will act on it’s own agenda, not ours. They are not, and cannot be, our partners.
The main beneficiaries of the militarisation are not Ukrainians who will be pounded by more heavy artillery, but the weapons industry. A recent Financial Times article carried the headline Defence industry shares soar on western backing for Ukraine. As Billy Bragg sang: “War: What is it Good For? It’s good for business”. Volodymyr Zelenskyy and BlackRock CEO Larry Fink have already issued a joint statement, saying that they had agreed to focus on investment opportunities.
I do not believe in a kinder gentle NATO intervention which is concerned about human rights. Despite the NATO propaganda it is not, and never has been, a “defensive alliance”. It is utterly absurd to expect that the very institution that forged the conditions for the current crisis is able, let alone willing, to solve it!
War is the product of a nationalism which binds us to our rulers, and asks us to trust them against a common enemy. This does not further our cause. A quote sometimes attributed to Lenin says, “a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at both ends”. The Ukrainian government is already conscripting unwilling workers, including the disabled into its army.
In an age of nuclear weapons (or the illegal phosphorous bombs which Zelenskyy recently demanded), the possibility of mass deaths is very real. And the people responsible for the destruction will stay safe in their palaces.
If we reduce our role to advising our rulers and generals – people who have never acted in our interests – we do not help the fight for peace and against oppression in Ukraine, or anywhere else. Putin is not our friend. NATO is not our friend. The German government is not our friend. Let’s stop feeling we have to choose between different agents of capitalism. No war but the class war.
Thanks to Hamja Ahsan, Rob Hoveman, Bernado Jurema, Carol McGuigan, Rosemarie Nünning and Anna Southern who gave feedback on a draft version of this article.