Don’t debate the war!

Mike Phipps laments the decline of the Stop the War Coalition as a broad united front

As previously reported on Labour Hub, at the start of Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, I went on a Stop the War Coalition demonstration on Sunday March 6th. Concerned about the small size of the march and the tiny number of Ukrainians on it and following some discussion with other activists, I circulated an appeal for building the broadest possible movement around three central demands:  Russian troops out of Ukraine; No to war; and Refugees welcome here.

The appeal was sent to the Stop the War Coalition. They rejected it and said it could not “support any demonstration called on the basis of the demands outlined.”

This was because “these demands do not address central features of the crisis”, namely NATO expansion, nor do they “suggest any criticism of British diplomacy during the crisis, including the wish of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss to fight Putin to the last drop of Ukrainian blood, a position apparently supported by the Labour leadership. It is vital that we make concrete demands of the British government, and not take refuge in platitudes or demands on other regimes only.”

This was an astonishing reply. A sovereign country is invaded by an imperialist neighbour that has a long history of denying Ukraine its national rights. It commits the vilest war crimes, including the deliberate targeting of civilians and hospitals, mass looting, rape and cultural destruction, yet for the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition, the key issue is to criticise British government diplomacy.

The expansion of NATO is repeatedly cited as a reason for Putin’s invasion.  I don’t see this as a central factor at all. In fact, Putin’s own statements reference the historic domination of Ukraine by Russia as a justification for his actions. In this article, Putin dismisses Ukrainian nationhood as an invention of the Poles and/or Austro-Hungarians.

As previously reported, I responded to Stop the War’s response to our appeal as follows:

“You say that it is clear that NATO’s expansion has “contributed to the war”, but this is not clear at all. It could equally be argued that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an act of unprovoked imperialist aggression, designed simply to seize the land and resources of a sovereign people. During the war on Iraq, Stop the War quite rightly did not claim that any action by the Saddam Hussein regime contributed to Iraq being invaded. The attack on Iraq was an act of unprovoked imperialist aggression. Why not hold Russian imperialism to the same standard?”

I concluded:

“It was to be hoped that Stop the War could look beyond ‘unity on the left’ on an issue of this importance, as it did in its heyday in 2003, when even Liberal Democrat politicians, not to mention faith groups that don’t naturally align with the left,  were allowed onto its platforms. The only stipulation then was that they opposed the unprovoked attack on Iraq – not that they subscribe to a whole range of other criticisms, about NATO, British government diplomacy or arms spending. That was the right approach then and it remains so now.”

Stop the War leaders continue to push the line that NATO is centrally responsible for this conflict and that Ukraine must be denied the right to defend itself against Russian aggression as this would escalate the conflict. This is clear from the resolution authored by Stop the War Coalition officers and passed at the organisation’s recent conference. It repeatedly references NATO as the cause of the conflict.

It’s not surprising that that few Ukrainians, including on the left, support Stop the War’s line.

Dr Yuliya Yurchenko, author of Ukraine and the Empire of Capital: From Marketization to Armed Conflict (Pluto, 2018) and Senior Lecturer in in Political Economy at the University of Greenwich, said in a recent interview: “Reducing this war to conflict between the West and Russia overlooks Ukraine and treats it as a mere pawn between powers. That analysis denies Ukrainians our subjectivity and our agency in the conflict. It also suppresses discussion of our right to self-determination and our fight for national liberation.”

She underlines the character of the invading power: “In this conflict, Russia can in no way be considered a different project than the US and the rest of the capitalist powers. Just like them, Russia is a neoliberal capitalist state fighting for more land, resources, and profit. Its rulers don’t care about improving the lives of everyday Russians who are exploited and oppressed.”

In a warning to the kind of thinking that dominates the Stop the War Coalition leadership, she concluded: “The international left must put its decolonial hat on in thinking about Ukraine. We are fighting Russia, our historic imperial oppressor. We’ve been politically, economically, culturally, and linguistically dominated and colonized for a very long time.

“I think some people still get their vision clouded by a one-dimensional opposition to US imperialism alone. But the US is not the aggressor in this situation. Russia is. Of course, NATO is a factor, but not the determinant one. Should NATO exist? Of course not. It should have been disbanded a long time ago. We all agree on that…

“The international left must be in solidarity with Ukraine as an oppressed nation and our fight for self-determination. That includes our right to secure arms for our fighters and volunteers to win our freedom.

“But the left must not support calls for closing the skies, essentially a demand for a NATO-imposed no fly zone. That would mean an air war between US and European fighters and Russian ones, risking a wider war between nuclear powers.” 

Like most of her co-thinkers, Yurchenko explicitly rules out the idea of a ‘no-fly zone’ which would dangerously escalate the conflict. Yet this shibboleth is frequently raised by those looking for excuses not to stand in solidarity with Ukraine.

In another interview, she was blunter about the role of Stop the War: “By all means we can talk about pacifist solutions to conflicts before they begin. Now we’re in a conflict that is a war of aggression, unprovoked, and where there are indiscriminate killings, torture and rape of civilians. I would also point out that Ukraine tried negotiations for eight years and the result was this invasion. If anybody from the UK Stop the War Coalition or some sort of hardcore pacifist organisation wants to propose a practicable plan how to resolve this without fighting back, I would be genuinely interested. But I think the discussions proposed so far are frankly callous, delusional crap.”

I quote this at length because supporters of Ukrainian self-determination have in some circles been smeared as NATO supporters who wish to escalate the conflict. This is not the case. But to deny the right of Ukraine to defend itself in current circumstances is effectively to permit Russian forces to overrun and loot the country and terrorise its people. This is not acceptable.

Even if you don’t believe Ukraine has the right to defend itself, there are many things Stop the War could be doing to solidarise with the plight of Ukrainians. I helped launch an appeal, for example, to highlight the position of mayors and elected officials in Ukraine who have been abducted and disappeared. Stop the War showed no interest.

Equally a campaign to cancel Ukraine’s foreign debt would be worthy of support. There is nothing in support of these basic measures of solidarity in the resolutions passed by the Stop the War Conference.

It’s clear that many on the international left view the world in terms of two camps – allies of the USA and opponents of the USA. One is bad and the other is, if not good, well, less bad. This outlook wasn’t acceptable while the Soviet Union existed and it is even less acceptable now.

Left-wing campism stands accused of “interpreting this war today as a confrontation between a humiliated, surrounded and threatened Russia and an arrogant, conquering, aggressive West: Ukraine would basically be only a battlefield between the imperialist enemy which wants to expand infinitely and Russia, a country attacked and deceived by false promises in 1990.”

The problem with this campist outlook is that it ignores the kleptocratic, dictatorial and expansionist character of the Russian state which has sought to destroy all internal opposition and is now unleashing on Ukraine what it has previously exported to Chechnya, Syria, and more recently Belarus and Kazakhstan: armed destruction of the democratic aspirations of the people.

This outlook, in my view, infects the Stop the War Coalition leadership. Tariq Ali, for example, who frequently speaks from Stop the War platforms, mocked the rumours of an alleged massive attack by Russia on Ukraine just eight days before the invasion began. He blamed the warmongering Americans for not showing Putin the “respect” he deserved and dismissed Ukraine as nothing more than ‘Natoland’.

Andrew Murray, another leading Stop the War figure and newly re-elected to its Steering Committee, also mocked the Russian build-up of troops ahead of the conflict. He dismissed the 100,000 Russian troops stationed on the Ukrainian border as “allegations” and “media speculation”. John Wojcik in the Morning Star said they are there “if corporate press outlets are to be believed”.

When the invasion happened, all concerned were quick to formally declare their opposition to Russia’s incursion. Of course. But the analysis did not fundamentally change. If anyone were expecting some accounting or reassessment by the Morning Star and others of their mockery of Ukrainians’ legitimate and accurate fears of a Russian invasion, they would be disappointed.

Perhaps this would have been a good time to put a little distance between Britain’s anti-war movement and a newspaper that had systematically and deliberately misreported what was happening on Ukraine’s borders? On the contrary, Stop the War leaders lined up to write pieces for the Morning Star denouncing the West’s aggression! In the March 19th edition alone, there are articles by Lindsey German, Kate Hudson, Chris Nineham and Andrew Murray, all newly re-elected to the STW Steering Committee.

It’s an important platform for Stop the War leaders but, like RT and other outlets, it may come at a price. It may not be available if they deviate too much from the authorised editorial line.

A little local difficulty

I was a founder member of Brent Stop the War in 2001 and chaired the local group for many years. I was a bit reluctant to be involved recently in organising a local meeting that showcased the wrong line of the national Stop the War Coalition if it were unopposed, but agreed to find a speaker who would present the Ukrainian viewpoint. Simon Pirani, Honorary Professor at  the University of Durham who has written extensively on Russia and campaigns in solidarity with Ukraine, agreed at short notice to speak, debating Stop the War Convenor Lindsey German.

Less than a week before the meeting was due to take place, Lindsey German suddenly discovered she had a previous commitment.  No other Stop the War speaker was willing to take part. Asking around, I found there was a history of this – a refusal to debate viewpoints that challenged the official Stop the War line on Ukraine. The local co-secretary of Brent Stop the War, sympathetic to this approach, was advised by the national leadership to cancel the meeting and unilaterally did so, without consultation with other local officers or the invited speaker. It all had the whiff of a mean-spirited manoeuvre – a bureaucratic solution to a political problem which was simultaneously shocking yet predictable.

It’s a sad end for Brent Stop the War which has a long history of well-attended public meetings on Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, civil liberties, military recruitment and much more, as well as an exemplary fundraising record.

Meanwhile the efforts of the Stop the War Coalition nationally to sideline alternative viewpoints goes on regardless. Its most recent London rally on June 25th did not bother to schedule a single Ukrainian speaker.  This self-inflicted damage will be costly. It’s doubtful whether Stop the War will recover from both this kind of anti-democratic behaviour and its fundamentally wrong approach to the war in Ukraine. Its attitude in recent months has been an act of self-marginalisation, setting back our ability to mobilise against future wars, a fact that makes it all the more shameful.

Read here the notes for the speech that Simon Pirani was planning to give before the Brent Stop the War meeting was unilaterally cancelled.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

Image: Stop The War protests in London, 2007. Source: Crowd. Author: David Hunt, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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