Stampeded by Russia’s attack
Public and parliamentary opinion have undergone a panicked swing away from non-alignment. Jan Nyström reports on the attempt to forge a principled opposition to Nato membership
Finland’s historic decision to apply for Nato membership can only be understood against a centuries-long difficult relationship with Russia, while at the same time providing us with an example of a parliamentary left completely capitulating on its principles and almost uncritically accepting an imperialist agenda in reaction to media hysteria.
It is also a story of an elite using fear and confusion caused by Russia’s murderous attack to fulfil its long-held plans. Much of the public discussion about Nato membership revolves around the relationship to Russia and the traumatic feelings of subservience that the media translates into revanchist aggression. Nato membership is frequently painted as a realisation of full national sovereignty, so, in order to understand the background to the decision and its popularity, it might be useful to look at the tensions that previously characterised Finnish neutrality.
Once it became evident that Nazi Germany was not going to win World War II, the Finnish bourgeoisie, alongside their social democratic brothers in arms, were forced to reorient their attitude to the Soviet Union. Peace terms meant ceding Karelia in southern Finland, and Petsamo and Salla in the north, plus heavy reparations and the renting of Porkkala, close to Helsinki, as a Soviet military base (the lease ending in 1956). Nevertheless, Finland retained its national sovereignty as a capitalist economy. The peace treaty also dictated that fascist organisations were to be disbanded, and the Communist Party became legal for the first time.
The Moscow-loyal, communist-dominated People’s Democratic League got almost a quarter of the votes in parliamentary elections right after the war in 1945. This was like the prayer of Honkajoki, a Finnish soldier from Väinö Linna’s great novel about the ‘continuation war’, The unknown soldier: “And finally, together and separately, protect those Finnish gentlemen from losing their heads in the Karelian pine tree for the second time. Amen.” This indicated that the popular rightwing trope that Finns unbearably suffered from having a friendly and cooperative relationship with the Soviet Union was not true: on the contrary, it reflected the will of the majority of peace-loving working people.
But it was not just the left, as was exemplified by the popularity of the rightwing and centre, and the two freely elected, neutralist presidents: the rightwing Juho Kusti Paasikivi; and the ‘centrist’, Urho Kekkonen. The ‘Paasikivi-Kekkonen line’ became synonymous with the peaceful coexistence of a small capitalist country and its bureaucratic socialist, superpower neighbour.
An important part of this was the doctrine of neutrality, enshrined in the 1948 Agreement of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (the YYA treaty), that acknowledged the neutral position of Finland and its duty to defend Finnish territory against “Germany or its allies”. The protocol also stated that Finland could and should ask for Soviet defence assistance if needed.
This ominous paragraph was used in the internal political game. Adhering to the creed of neutrality and good relations to the east became a requirement for admission to the political elite. Political and economic power was intertwined with trade with the Soviet Union, which was an important factor in the rise of Finnish living standards after the war and a source of great capitalist riches. The 70s and 80s was the time of ‘Finlandisation’ - a term invented by German political scientists mostly for domestic use, but widely used in Finland as a pejorative term for bowing to the east.
Yet the Finnish bourgeoisie was never completely comfortable with this peaceful coexistence. From their point of view one of its negative characteristics was that putting down the left was more difficult - working class groups had to be given some kind of political role - something they never had before the war. At the same time, however, class-consciousness was absorbed into a welfare-statist spirit of consensus. Even the left split from the Communist Party of Finland was essentially conservative: it regarded class struggle as best exemplified by unflinching loyalty to Moscow - a Moscow which needed Finland more as a neutral, friendly, capitalist country than a candidate for Sovietising.
In the heyday of ‘Finlandisation’, the country was already moving closer to the west. However, in 1973 Finland signed a free-trade agreement with the European Economic Community, which a few years later became part of the European Union, of course. After the collapse of Soviet Union the liberalisation of the economy and more open assertion of dominance over the working class was high on the agenda of Finnish capitalists.
This was assisted by a deep economic crisis, partly caused by the collapse of the debt-based boom following the deregulation of financial markets in the 80s and partly by the end of the Finno-Soviet trade deal. Finland signed a ‘partnership for peace’ agreement with Nato in 1994 and joined the EU in 1995. Finland also bought 64 American fighter jets, further tying defence capabilities to western cooperation. In 2002 the Social Democratic prime minister, Paavo Lipponen, visited George Bush and Dick Cheney in Washington, where he expressed support for the invasion of Iraq and was promised US support for Finnish membership of Nato. However, it took 20 years before this dream of the Finnish elite became a reality, mostly due to the staunch popular support for non-alliance.
Everything changed after Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The fear of a seemingly unhinged Russia was demonstrated in a poll immediately afterwards, which for the first time saw ‘yes to Nato’ exceed 50%. Since then there has been growing support for membership, aided by gruesome media images of Russian atrocities - usually portrayed as something unheard of, as opposed to the reality of modern war so familiar to millions in Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Syria … Now, it seems, Russia had completely changed, was ruled by a madman and could no longer be trusted. Politicians, researchers and activists trying to discuss the complexity of the situation and the role of Nato expansion and western interests in Ukraine and towards Russia were harshly criticised by liberal pundits as ‘whataboutists’ and useful idiots, if not outright Putinists or paid Kremlin agents.
Russia’s attack gave the government of prime minister Sanna Marin a reason to make use of the so-called Nato option that was part of its programme.1 This declared that the government, while still committed to non-alliance, reserved the right to re-evaluate this position if the security situation essentially changed. Until a few months ago only the small Swedish People’s Party of Finland and the opposition National Coalition Party had declared support for Nato. Thus, on paper there was an overwhelming non-alliance majority in the Finnish parliament. Even president Sauli Niinistö had been a supporter of a referendum on Nato before the Russian invasion, but afterwards a referendum was considered as either unnecessary, as the popular will was supposedly amply manifested in opinion polls, or too susceptible to Russian influence.
Thus, the state establishment took the decision to seek membership in a situation where most members of parliament were elected as either supporters of non-alliance or undecided on the question; and citizens were not given the opportunity to state their opinion in a referendum. Furthermore, the decision was made hastily during a crisis, when the fog of war made it impossible for the majority to arrive at a balanced judgement about the real situation. Amongst all this chaos and panic one must remember that there was no actual ‘security threat’ directed against Finland.
The Social Democrats under Marin were quick to take up the Nato option, which gave them the opportunity to discard their commitment to non-alliance. ‘Left’ figures like the veteran, Erkki Tuomioja, voiced some criticism, but all these mildly Nato-critical Social Democrats ultimately caved in and, in the parliamentary vote, membership of Nato was unanimously supported by the Social Democrats, completely cementing the party’s standing as an imperialist party. In the Left Union, on the other hand, the vote was split - nine for Nato and six against. Earlier the party had decided that it would not leave the Marin government over Nato, even though its programme states that Finland should not be part of any alliance. But, of course, for opportunists programmes are not worth the paper that they are printed on - it is votes that count and both parties have already decided not to let the 2023 general election become a Nato election.
The Finnish parliament approved the Nato application by 188 votes to 8, so the Left Union’s six made up a substantial part of the opposition (the other two being on the right - one of them the openly Putinist far right). Could these six form a principled opposition bloc to militarism and imperialism and could their example lead to an anti-imperialist left renaissance?
Sadly, I do not see this happening, as these Nato opponents are not questioning its bourgeois politics per se: they are only attaching opposite truth values to it. In other words, while Nato proponents claim that Finland’s security will be enhanced by membership, its opponents say that it will be in greater peril. There is nothing socialist in this: it is all part of the bourgeois debate on what is in the interests of the nation-state - and certainly not what is in the interests of the working class.
Beyond the parliamentary left, Finland’s two small communist parties, the SKP (Communist Party of Finland) and KTP (Communist Workers Party), are actively involved in a ‘Stop Nato’ campaign that is trying to organise larger resistance, popular-front style. Although there is a lot that it is laudable in this campaign, it is not unproblematic from a Marxist perspective. The campaign lists as its main arguments against Nato:
- The human and economic costs of wars, weapons and military alliances.
- Malevolence of US imperialism.
- Loss of Finnish neutrality and the country’s positive role for peace.
- Neutrality between east and west.
- Lack of any national consensus over Nato.
- Independent defence has been the backbone of military strategy.
- Finland would become part of the Nato frontline against Russia.
- The established foreign policy line would be changed with unpredictable consequences.2
While these concerns are real, coming from socialists they are disappointing, to put it mildly. They vary, from social-pacifism at their best to social-patriotism at their worst. Wishing to hit the lowest common denominator of vaguely leftist Nato critics, the communists have forsaken the essence of the question: commitment to class struggle and the fight against imperialism. When the Finnish social democrats in summer 1917, as urged by Alexandra Kollontai, chose to join the Zimmerwald movement, they did it to take a stand against all imperialism, for the freedom of all peoples and to keep their party firmly on the track of anti-imperialist class struggle.
However, to give a voice to a principled working class, socialist and anti-imperialist opposition to Nato, a network of far-left groups has also been formed. The Radical Left Against Nato welcomes all organisations that approve of its principles: opposition to Nato on the basis of working class independence that sees lasting peace under capitalism as impossible and has revolution and socialism as its goals. Furthermore there must be opposition to the Finnish bourgeois state, which means discarding the arguments about ‘best for Finland’. Whether they are for or against Nato, those that put Finland first are deceivers, hiding the class contradictions that are central to socialists.
The network is not striving to impose unity of thought or expression on its affiliated organisations, but is looking to facilitate unity in action against Nato. Forging such unity is not an easy task, as there are disagreements on many fundamental questions among the participants, ranging from anarchists to Trotskyists and independently minded communists. Positively they see open discussion and criticism as the way forward for overcoming sectarianism, building a real socialist opposition to Nato and creating unity on the revolutionary left.
The Nato process, that has only just started, and has already put Finland and Sweden at the centre of current imperialist power games, as exemplified by the demands of Turkey, is going to be a watershed period for the Finnish left. While the pro-imperialist left will claim that it is possible to influence Nato from the inside, it will also claim that it still champions the fight for social justice for the less fortunate members of society.
It is the task of socialists to expose this hypocrisy and demand a principled position against imperialism and for the global proletarian cause. A left that is giving up its principles will not be able to fight against the cuts and privatisation that Finnish people will undoubtedly be facing after the 2023 elections.