Four anti-war nos
Daniel Lazare welcomes the refusal of the DSA’s international committee to go along with the Democrats’ warmongering
Since the Vietnam War, anti-war movements in advanced capitalist countries have been middle class affairs. This is not to say that workers have not taken part - they have. But academics, clerics and liberal politicians have set the tone by stressing pacifism and morality and generally playing down class struggle.
Part of the problem is that class struggle was itself in decline, at least overtly. Vietnam took place during a period of unrest that, in America, saw black revolts in dozens of cities and a strike wave that peaked in 1970, when 2.5 million people took part in major work stoppages. But, by the time the ‘coalition of the willing’ invaded Iraq in March 2003, the situation was the opposite, with the black middle class safely coopted and bourgeoisified and strikes down by more than 96%.1 Working class quiescence meant that bourgeois liberals had the field to themselves.
But the war in the Ukraine creates an opening for something different: a working class movement that is anti-war relative to Nato, but militant with regard to the class war at home that the capitalist crisis is unleashing. The call to ‘turn the imperialist war into a civil war’ may have seemed distant and removed when endless war in the Middle East coincided with apathy and indifference in the industrialised world. But that is no longer the case. Now class war and imperialist war are driving one another to new heights, as the war sets fire to the financial markets and the financial crisis fuels the growth of war.
One reason has to do with the war itself. Contrary to media reports, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not the biggest European military eruption since 1945 (at least not yet). Military deaths so far total 3,000-3,500, according to US and UN estimates, while civilian fatalities have reportedly topped the 400 mark. Tragic as this is, it is still a far cry from the top estimate of 140,000 deaths during the Balkan wars of 1991-2001. While two million Ukrainians have so far fled abroad, that is still half the number of those displaced in former Yugoslavia.2 So Ukraine still has a way to go.
But the new war, of course, is just two weeks old, which makes it all the more explosive and intense. It is also more virulent and infectious. Since Ukraine is not a Nato member, the Russian invasion did not trigger the alliance’s famous Article 5, which says that an attack on one member is an attack on all. But since it is officially a ‘member in waiting’, alongside the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the challenge to the Nato power structure is unmistakable.
It has therefore responded with everything short of war, as it airlifts arms and materiel at an unprecedented rate, welcomes refugees with open arms - in contrast to the wall of hostility that greeted African and Middle Eastern refugees in 2015 - and piles on the economic sanctions. “We’re waging an all-out economic and financial war on Russia,” French finance minister Bruno Le Maire declared last week. “We will cause the collapse of the Russian economy.”
The big question, therefore, is whether Nato can continue tiptoeing to the edge without going over. The answer is that the balancing act will grow more and more difficult, as calls for a no-fly zone proliferate and plans grow for a foreign-sponsored, Afghan-style insurgency inside Ukraine, should the Kyiv government fall. Pressure will increase for the alliance to put an end to its ‘half in, half out’ posture and choose once and for all between staying out and going in. As passions rage and the bourgeois press does everything in its power to drum up war fever, odds are definitely in favour of the latter.
If so, then considering that the US and Russia possess roughly 5,000 nuclear warheads each, comparisons with 1914 seem distinctly optimistic.
Meanwhile, the economic consequences also seem unstoppable. The world is already seeing a first-class energy shock, with crude oil prices up by 40% since the start of the war, petrol prices up 15% in the US, while natural gas prices zoomed 67% over the last weekend alone. But that could be just the start, as Washington and Moscow trade threats to boycott Russian oil and cut off German gas supplies by shutting down the decade-old Nord Stream 1 pipeline.
First, the US blamed Russia for building a new pipeline, and now it blames it for threatening to turn the old one off. But if the two sides indeed end up severing energy links, then Russian predictions of oil hitting $300 a barrel are far from implausible.
With US inflation already rising at the highest rate in 40 years, the US Federal Reserve will have little choice but to jack up interest rates even more sharply in response. An energy shock will give way to a lending shock, as factories close, workers are dismissed and financial markets tumble. Prior to the war, inflation was already costing American households an extra $276 a month for goods and services over the previous year, according to Bloomberg News. But now they will be spending more, even though household income has yet to recover from the pandemic. Nationwide, some 21 million customers in the US had fallen behind on heating electricity bills as of December - a figure that is certain to rise, as the energy crunch deepens.
The seeds for a social explosion are thus being sown. Socialists have always rallied workers against wage cuts and layoffs. But now they must rally them against layoffs and war.
This double burden is not without certain advantages. This is particularly so inside the global hegemon, where Russophobia is largely a Democratic phenomenon. To be sure, the US has been fulminating against Putin since the 2008 South Ossetian war, which erupted while Republican president George W Bush was still in office. But American anger increased under Barack Obama, when Putin dared to oppose Nato intervention in Libya in 2011, and it rose even further when the Kremlin backed a pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine in response to the US-backed, anti-Russian coup d’état in Kiev in February 2014.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her fellow neocons were furious when Putin took control of the Crimean peninsula a month later. But they were positively incandescent when he intervened in Syria in September 2015. Even though the goal was to prevent the Bashar al-Assad regime from falling into the maws of Islamic State and al Qa’eda, Democrats saw it as proof that Putin was every bit as satanic as they said he was.
Seven years later, the upshot is that Democrats ‘own’ the Ukraine war to a great degree - not only because it is taking place during a Democratic administration, but because they see it as the culmination of warnings that Putin is infinitely evil, someone who wants to “re‑establish the former Soviet Union”, as Joe Biden recently put it, and thus undermine the Democrats’ ‘rules-based’ international order.
But this also means that left liberals, who would ordinarily lead the anti-war charge, are nowhere to be seen, thanks to their Democratic ties. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes are both toeing the party line by calling for “severe sanctions on Vladimir Putin and his fellow oligarchs”. So is The Nation, mainstay of America’s liberal left, which recently published a war cry written by Anthony Barnett, co-founder of the left-lib ‘openDemocracy’ pressure group. Barnett declared:
Putin will and - more important - should be defeated. Now is the time for war, given that he has chosen it, until Russia withdraws. The conflict will be suffered by the people of Ukraine, and we must extend to them solidarity and support, including military support.3
Surprise, surprise - the Democratic Party’s left wing is falling in line behind the Nato war drive. But this makes a statement put out by the Democratic Socialists of America’s international committee all the more important. Issued during the run-up to the invasion, it declares that “Nato is a mechanism for US-led, western imperialist domination, fuelling expansionism, militarisation and devastating interventions,” and it puts the blame for the crisis precisely where it should be: on “the US and its western allies” for “stationing US troops in Ukraine and training far-right extremist groups with neo-Nazi sympathies, such as the Azov Battalion.”
The statement goes on:
In order to de-escalate the crisis and avoid further conflict and death in eastern Europe and the Caucasus, DSA international committee calls on the US to reverse its ongoing militarisation in the region, avoid implementing sanctions against Russia, and uphold internationally agreed-upon commitments to end Nato’s expansionist drive to provide guarantees that Ukraine will remain a neutral state. These measures are crucial for diplomacy to bring about a resolution to this conflict without it spiralling into a larger regional war between nuclear powers. We call on anti-war activists to be resolute in opposing military escalations and to demand a lasting diplomatic solution.4
This is not the same as calling for class war, but it is a step in the right direction - one that the DSA’s governing body wound up strengthening, once the invasion took place, by seconding the call for withdrawal from Nato. It declared:
Much of the next 10 years are coming into view through this attack. While the failures of neoliberal order are clear to everyone, the ruling class is trying to build a new world, through a dystopic transition grounded in militarism, imperialism and war. Socialists have a duty to build an alternative.
Crucially, the statement ended with the slogan: “No war but class war”.5
Democrats are now pulling away in horror, and a divorce with the DSA is clearly in the offing. Hence, just as a new imperial strategy is coming into view, a new anti-war movement is as well - one shorn of its old bourgeois-liberal attachments. It is a movement that must be socialist and class-based. While it should oppose Putin’s invasion, it should condemn Nato first and foremost for clearing a path to war by attempting to encircle Russia with its reckless eastward expansion. It is a movement that should see recession at home and imperialism abroad as part of the same capitalist war drive.
If it is to be successful, a workers’ anti-war movement must base itself on four ‘nos’:
- No to Nato!
- No to neo-Nazis!
- No to inflation and unemployment!
- No to imperialist war!
Major work stoppages are defined as those involving a thousand workers or more. ‘Days of idleness’ relative to total working time meanwhile fell from 0.29% in 1970 to 0.01% in 2003. See ‘Work stoppages’, US Bureau of Labor Statistics: www.bls.gov/web/wkstp/annual-listing.htm.↩︎
DSA international committee statement, January 31 2022: international.dsausa.org/statements/no-war-with-russia.↩︎
DSA, ‘On Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’, February 26 2022: www.dsausa.org/statements/on-russias-invasion-of-ukraine.↩︎