Experience and expectations
Especially in light of the challenges of Nato’s proxy war, there needs to be a push for the unity of the Marxist left in a party project. James Harvey reports
The latest developments in the war in Ukraine and the implications for the politics of the left were amongst the topics considered at the June 19 aggregate of CPGB members, supporters and invited guests.
Opening the discussion, Jack Conrad of the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee began by reviewing the course of the Ukraine war and the unexpected ways in which it had developed since February 24. Not only were many people surprised that Russia had actually invaded Ukraine, but the widely held expectation of a short and successful thrust towards Kiev and the removal of the Zelensky regime had also been confounded by events. The ‘collateral damage’ to the economies of Ukraine and Russia, and the wider impact of the war on global food and energy supplies, were now major issues in world politics.
If the early stages of the conflict were a war of manoeuvre, comrade Conrad argued, we were now seeing a “war of position” - a bloody war of attrition, whose main focus was now on the eastern front in the Donbas. Whilst there had been varying explanations from military experts about why the Russian forces had failed in their initial strategy - ranging from shortcomings in supplies and equipment to operational command - it was now clear that the character of the war had shifted significantly and that Russia had regained the initiative to some extent. Jack suggested that we were witnessing something of a revolution in warfare, in which the combination of tank and infantry forces - strategically dominant since the Blitzkrieg of World War II - was being challenged by a combination of missiles and drones. Anti-tank and anti-air missiles, in particular, had given some new advantages to infantry defending positions and might result, on the eastern front in this war, in a stalemate akin to World War I.
This revolution in warfare highlighted the importance of Nato support for the Zelensky regime in terms of equipment and munitions, although comrade Conrad did not play down the significance of the successful popular mobilisation in support of the war effort that the Ukrainian state had been able to achieve. Given these developments and the current stalemate, it seems that the perspectives of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss about a ‘long war’ in Ukraine seem justified - a reality that will impact on both international and domestic politics for the foreseeable future.
The discussion then turned to the response of the left to the events in Ukraine and how political positions might develop in the future. It was clear, after four months of war, that in many cases there had been a speeding up of existing political trajectories. The pro-Nato and pro-imperialist politics of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty had reached a logical conclusion in standing alongside Keir Starmer and his backing for the war. Forms of social-pacifism which suggested that peace can be achieved under capitalism and that ‘reasonable diplomacy’ can prevent the escalation of war are reflected in the politics of the Stop the War Coalition and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The positions of the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party in England Wales are more ambiguous - with one foot in social-pacifism and the other in more principled positions in opposition to Nato’s proxy war.
Jack also discussed the politics of the pro-Kremlin left, such as George Galloway’s Workers Party of Britain and sections of the CPB’s Young Communist League, who either argued from a false ‘anti-imperialist’ position that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ or emphasised the anti-Nazi rhetoric of the Russian state, giving the invasion a progressive character. On the other hand, the pro-Ukraine left focused on who fired the first shots and ignored the bigger, geo-political picture: namely, the decisive role of a declining US hegemon trying to re-establish its position vis-à-vis its prime target, China. This emerging struggle gives our period something much closer to the geo-political dynamics in the years leading up to World War I.
However, both Jack and other comrades who spoke were at pains to highlight the significant differences between that period and our own time. The decisive factor is the weakness of the principled left and the working class movement generally.
In 1914 a mass working class movement existed in Europe that was committed in theory to revolutionary defeatism in the event of an imperialist war. Thus, Lenin could base his revolutionary politics on that potential subjective factor, which proved to be significant in the growth of the left beginning in 1916 but especially after 1917. Looking at the reaction of the left to the war in Ukraine, unfortunately we cannot say the same thing today!
It is an understatement to say that these are challenging times for the revolutionary left, especially as the war looks set to grindingly continue and Nato seems determined to increase its involvement. Domestically capitalist governments, such as the Tories in Britain, will continue their war drive and increasingly attempt to clamp down on the trade unions and opposition from the left. Combined with continuing economic and political crises, in these circumstances the war could provoke a response from the left, could expose its contradictions and trigger serious debate within the revolutionary left. An appeal and a drive for principled Marxist unity could find an echo within these groups and result in the growth of a genuine Marxist current.
Other themes in the discussion included the cost of the war and its impact on the world economy. Whilst comrades understood the strategic imperatives behind the war and how it fitted into the wider strategy of US imperialism, some questions were raised about the politically and economically counterproductive aspects of a protracted war. The playing out of tensions within the European Union and the impact that the different national interests of France, Germany and Italy, as well as smaller states such as Hungary, will have on the ‘united front’ against Putin was also considered by comrades during the discussion. Above all, comrades were keen to stress the importance of the wider geopolitical context far beyond Ukraine and Russia.
The importance of the proxy war for the US was shown by Biden’s attempts to bring the Saudi and Emirati regimes onside, when it came to oil production and helping the west find an alternative to energy imports from Russia. Whatever the outcome of the current stalemate in Ukraine itself, and whilst the exact timescale and pattern of events could not be predicted, there were sure to be many diplomatic twists and turns ahead - it was clear that we were now in the antechamber of a serious conflict between the US and China.
The US will thus not miss a trick to stop, humiliate and diminish China’s ally, Russia, whatever the cost. In general, the war has strengthened the US position, making Europe more dependent on the US for energy and mobilising increased support for Nato. It also has given Washington the chance to pursue regime change in Moscow and decisively weaken “China’s Austria-Hungary”. The war has also strengthened Britain’s position in Washington, despite the uncertainties engendered by Brexit. The ‘independent foreign policy’ of ‘global Britain’ has simply increased British strategic dependence on the US hegemon and has reinforced the politics of the special relationship between Washington and London. Labour, as always on foreign policy, is in lockstep with the British ruling class on this issue: if it is possible, Sir Keir Starmer is even more loyal and subservient to the US than the Tories!
Summing up the discussion, comrade Conrad returned to the importance of party and programme in the current period. While many on the left hope for a return to the mass mobilisations of the 2000s against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that type of purely ‘anti-war’ movement has no purchase at the moment and, even if it emerged, would represent a dead end for revolutionary politics. The development of a principled programme and the building of a Marxist party remains the central issue for the revolutionary left in Britain and internationally. This runs counter to the common sense of much of the left, who advocate broad-front parties that make concessions to capitalism and blur the distinction between reformism and revolutionary politics.
However, the CPGB will continue arguing for its project of Marxist unity and believes that such a call can receive a sympathetic hearing from comrades across the left who genuinely want to build such a party. While the serious divisions within the left over Ukraine and the blind alleys they have produced make such a project difficult, the urgent needs of the situation mean that such a political initiative is all the more vital in the immediate period ahead.
The aggregate also saw the launch of this year’s Summer Offensive - a period in which CPGB members and supporters intensify the important political tasks of building the finances of our organisation. The target this year is an ambitious £30,000. The meeting also heard details about this year’s Communist University, which will look at the pressing issue of ‘War and Peace’. Further details about both the Summer Offensive and Communist University will appear in coming issues of Weekly Worker.