Reformism to warmongering: a slippery slope

On 9 April, a group called Stand With Ukraine held a small demonstration in London. Despite receiving support from a number of trade unions, only a few hundred people took part. In true Orwellian fashion, this so-called anti-war solidarity demonstration was filled with hair-raising, warmongering rhetoric. Slogans included: “arm, arm, arm Ukraine!”, and participants were reportedly inviting NATO to “call Putin’s bluff”, i.e. to launch a full-blown military intervention and spark World War III.

At the head of this motley crew was self-described ‘Marxist’ pundit, Paul Mason, who is a textbook case of how quickly self-styled lefts and pacifists can transform into some of the most vociferous warmongers and open advocates of imperialism.

Mason’s keynote speech at the end of the demonstration outside Whitehall explained that members of the labour movement are “rightly wary of armed conflict. We are natural pacifists.” However, “in wars like this, we have to take a side.” And Mason has fallen firmly on the side of NATO and US imperialism, which are in the process of funnelling huge quantities of weapons into Ukraine, with the stated goal (according to US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken) of giving Russia a bloody nose, and weakening its military capabilities. In other words, the imperialists are staging a proxy war on Ukrainian soil against one of their main enemies.

But for Mason, this is a fight for democracy and national sovereignty. Therefore, it is paramount that ‘pacifists’ set aside their qualms, and give Ukraine’s brave freedom fighters (presumably including fascist units like the Azov Battalion) the means to fight. Unfortunately, the labour movement “can’t send them weapons – we don’t have any. But the British government can. That’s why we should go on calling for, and supporting, arms to Ukraine.” Here we have a left-winger – a Marxist, by his own account – calling on the Tory government of Boris Johnson to send weapons to Ukraine, helping to escalate and drag out this brutal inter-imperialist conflict. Quite the unedifying spectacle.

A slippery slope

The Ukraine conflict has served to ruthlessly expose these ‘left-wingers’ and ‘pacifists’, who will at the first beat of the war drum abandon an internationalist class position and fall in with the deafening chorus of imperialist propaganda. A most repulsive role has been played by the right-wing reformist leaders of the social democracy and the trade unions in Europe, who have lost no time falling over themselves to join the capitalists and imperialists in their war drives and hysterical anti-Russian campaigns. They have revealed themselves as the most servile lackeys of the enemies of the working class in every country, banning dissent within their ranks and demanding utmost loyalty to NATO and all its works.

warmongering Image Steve Eason FlickrThe Ukraine conflict has ruthlessly exposed these ‘left-wingers’ and ‘pacifists’, who will at the first beat of the war drum abandon an internationalist class position and fall in with the deafening chorus of imperialist propaganda / Image: Steve Eason, Flickr

We expected nothing better from the likes of Sir Keir Starmer and the other leaders of European Social Democracy. But for their part, the conduct of the left reformists has been little better. To a greater or lesser extent, they have allowed themselves to be dragged behind the chorus of ‘saving poor little Ukraine’, without ever bothering to analyse the class interests that lie behind the present conflict. Some confine themselves to impotent pacifism, and appeal for the United Nations to broker a ceasefire, despite the fact that the UN has no independent policy outside of imperialist interests. Others, like Mason, have shifted sharply to the right, and, under the influence of the mood of war hysteria whipped up by the media, passed directly into the camp of imperialism.

We mention this case, not because of any intrinsic interest or importance. Mason’s name is familiar only to a relatively small layer on the left in his home country, while outside Britain it is hardly known at all. We are not concerned with the individual as such, but only with a political trend that, to a greater or lesser extent, is present in all countries at the present time, and which Mason expresses in an extreme form. While we naturally disagree fundamentally with every single one of his positions, we must at least thank Mason for his honesty in the way in which he defends his reactionary ideas.

Figleaves for class collaboration

Mason’s attitude about the war in Ukraine is summarised as follows:

“Ukraine’s struggle is not just about national sovereignty and international law. It’s the frontline of the defence of democracy in Europe. And no matter how flawed that democracy is, how corrupt, how unequal, it is worth defending — because there is no Universal Basic Income trial in a Finland under Russian occupation.” (our emphasis)

Somehow, in Paul Mason’s head, the question of the Ukraine war has become entangled with the fate of Finland and Universal Basic Income. Presumably, Mason is anxious for Finland and Sweden to join NATO as soon as possible in order to prevent a Russian invasion – an invasion which nobody has seriously considered until now. Failure to forestall this dreamed up invasion plan would be dire, for it would surely mean the end of the Finnish government’s Universal Basic Income experiment, whereby it pays €560 per month to some 2,000 people.

mason solidarity Image Steve Eason FlickrMason wants to bury class divisions under a mountain of jingoistic propaganda about ‘national unity’ against a ‘common enemy’. There is not an ounce of progressive content in such outrageous class collaboration – Image: Steve Eason Flickr

In his youth, Paul Mason used to stand for the overthrow of capitalism. With the wisdom that comes with age, he has today moderated his hopes for ameliorating the conditions of the working class to a few tinkering reforms to the benefits system. But he is prepared to defend these sops through the wholesale militarisation of the European continent. Who will pay for Europe’s extravagant militarism? The working class, of course, who will have to trade in much of the welfare state for which they have fought, nevermind Mason’s fantasies about UBI.

But let us deal with his points in order. Firstly, Ukraine’s sovereignty. As we have explained elsewhere, Marxists support the democratic right to self-determination. But this right is subordinated to the general interests of the world working class and the class struggle as a whole. It is clearly not to the benefit of either to support the continuation of a war that, in addition to inflicting great suffering on workers caught in the middle, condemns billions more to suffer the economic fallout all over the world. Let alone the prospect of escalating the conflict into a full-blown, nuclear confrontation between the major powers, which, as we shall see, Mason considers an inevitable and acceptable risk for the sake of defending Ukraine.

And moreover, whose self-determination are we talking about? Why does this inviolable principle not apply to the breakaway republics in the Donbas, who for eight years were shelled by the Ukrainian armed forces? It has been well publicised by the western media that the east of Ukraine has now become the main theatre of the war. But nothing is said by the same media outlets about why the centre of the war has moved to the east. The answer is: because the hardcore of the Ukrainian army is entrenched there as a result of the long war that the regime has been conducting against its own citizens.

This is not the first time the question of national self-determination has been exploited to justify an inter-imperialist war. For instance, the Allied powers cited the plight of ‘poor little Belgium’, following its invasion by Germany, as an excuse to enter the First World War. The social chauvinist leaders of the Second International sang the same song to justify support for their respective national war efforts. Just like Mason today, these warmongering ‘lefts’ exploited the question of national self-determination to encourage a bloc between the labour movement and imperialism.

Mason wants to bury class divisions under a mountain of jingoistic propaganda about ‘national unity’ against a ‘common enemy’. There is not an ounce of progressive content in such outrageous class collaboration. Dragging out the present slaughter is not in the interests of the workers of any country. And to advocate for it is a crime. But to go further even than this, and actually advocate for imperialist intervention, under the pretext of ‘defending Ukraine’ is a cynical betrayal of every principle of socialist internationalism.

And regarding so-called international law, what is that supposed to mean? Presumably, Mason refers to the countless treaties and decisions of the UN. But everybody knows that these are mere scraps of paper without the slightest validity or importance in international affairs. Has international law prevented any of the numerous wars from taking place since 1945? We do not think so. And all the votes taken in the United Nations for the last half-century have done nothing to put an end to the brutal occupation of the Palestinian lands by the Israeli aggressors, for example. The great powers may invoke international law to disguise their cynical policies, but they have never at any time allowed it to interfere with their conduct in world affairs. In the words attributed to Solon the Great of Athens: “the law is like a spider’s web. The small are caught, and the great tear it up.” To even mention ‘international law’ in the present context of the Ukraine war is mere childishness.

Does the working class support the war?

At the aforementioned rally in London, Paul Mason had this to say:

“I want to say to our guests from Ukraine. We the British labour and trade union movement are with you. Putin has support, in case you haven’t noticed, from parts of the financial elite, from the far-right — and sadly from a small fraction of the far left who have hailed Russian troops as ‘peacekeepers and defenders’.”

johnson Zelensky Image Number10 FlickrUkrainian President Volodomir Zelensky has the enthusiastic support of such 'peace-loving humanitarians' as Boris Johnson, Joe Biden, NATO and all the main imperialist powers / Image: Number10, Flickr

Regarding the latter, we should point out that Mason tends to dismiss anyone remotely critical of NATO as a ‘Putin appeaser.’ But in any case, according to Mr Mason, Ukraine has the full support of British workers and trade unions. That may well be the case. It is always the natural instinct of the working class to sympathise with the plight of poor people suffering the horrors of war. No doubt, if the workers of Britain were asked for their opinion (which nobody has bothered to obtain), they would answer with a single voice that they want peace. But the purpose of Mr Mason, and the other organisers of this rally, was not at all peaceful. It was precisely to demand an intensification of the armed struggle and a continuation of the war until victory – that is to say, the victory of NATO and imperialism.

In case they haven’t noticed, Ukrainian President Volodomir Zelensky has the enthusiastic support of such peace-loving humanitarians as Boris Johnson (who has apparently had a street in Odessa named in his honour), Joe Biden, NATO and all the main imperialist powers. These are the characters that Mason wishes us to jump into bed with! People whose hands are stained with the blood of millions. And apparently, Mason feels they are not doing enough.

So what further support does he wish to see? He tells us, in an ideal world, he would like NATO to send troops to fight the Russians in Ukraine. Such a move has the slight inconvenience that it could provoke World War III and a direct clash with Russia, which possesses a formidable arsenal, including the world’s biggest stockpile of nuclear weapons, inherited from the USSR. This prospect naturally makes the US imperialists think twice. Our pacifist-warmonger is extremely irritated by such pusillanimity of the imperialists in defending their own interests. But, undaunted, he suggests a number of alternatives, for instance:

“Because NATO has stated it will not participate in the war [it must provide] bigger, faster and unlimited supply of heavy weapons, intelligence, ammunition and training.”

But one moment, Paul, isn’t that what they are already doing? Didn’t Biden just offer Ukraine a new tranche of weapons worth $800 million? This is still not enough, according to Mr Mason – the West must send even more arms to the Ukrainian army, as many as they need to facilitate a “fight until victory”. He writes:

“For as long as they want to go on fighting, the international labour and progressive movements should go on supporting Ukraine; support the sending of arms; support tougher sanctions, even though they harm ordinary Russians.”

We are sure this message will be gratefully received on the streets of Moscow. Curiously, Mason lavishes fulsome praise on the anti-war protestors languishing in Putin’s prisons for opposing the ‘special military operation’. Are these not ‘ordinary Russians’? Ultimately, the people best placed to combat Putin and put a stop to the Russian war effort are not NATO or the Ukrainian armed forces, but the Russian working class. Yet Mason regards economic misery for Russian workers as reasonable collateral damage in the West’s economic warfare against Putin. Mason succumbs to national chauvinism, making the entire Russian people an enemy, and legitimate targets for Western reprisals. Moreover, these sanctions are having no impact other than to temporarily rally the Russian population around the Putin regime, which was losing popularity prior to the invasion.

How Mason learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

And what about the danger of the Ukraine conflict escalating? Mason has given this some thought:

“[If] with the increased flow of heavy weapons from the West, Ukraine manages to inflict an operational defeat on the Russian army, the question of Putin’s strategic response looms… It could, in the worst-case scenario, lead to the ‘escalate-to-de-escalate’ option - a tactical nuclear strike to bring the West to the negotiating table instead of Ukraine.”

Faced with this scenario, Mason admits: “there are only a limited number of responses the electorates of the West could adopt.” He helpfully lays these out, ranging from:

  1. Give in to Russia’s demands;
  2. Impose an oil and gas embargo, “combined with the use of cyber and other non-lethal capabilities to aid Ukraine”;
  3. Send in a limited task force of professional “volunteer” forces;
  4. Officially enter the war “with conventional weapons only on Ukraine’s side”;
  5. Retaliate with a nuclear counter-strike.

Regarding option 2, as we have previously explained, sanctions are a double-edged sword. German dependence on Russian oil and gas helps explain their vacillating commitment to providing Ukraine with arms. The sudden decision of the Germans to send weapons to Ukraine – something they had always rejected – was hailed as a particularly important step. But now the Bundestag has announced, with a heavy heart that, unfortunately, they are unable to supply any more weapons, as they are short of means of defending themselves in the event of World War III – which Zelensky seems rather eager to provoke!

Then there are the more belligerent scenarios. On option 3, does anyone seriously think the Russians would be fooled by such a stupid trick for even one moment? Such an action would be immediately seen as NATO’s direct involvement in the war (i.e., option 4). This would lead inevitably to Mr Mason’s final option: the use of nuclear weapons. At this point, he clearly expects even the most fervent supporter of Ukraine to feel their enthusiasm cooling off, so he hastens to reassure the reader:

“If this list of options shocks you, you need to understand that any Western leadership not discussing them would be derelict of their duty.”

We are firmly of the opinion that the leaders of the western world, far from neglecting their duty, have thought long and hard about all the available options, and come to the conclusion that an all-out war with Russia is not at all in their best interests. Apart from anything else, they must take into account the reaction of their electorates. Generally speaking, the prospect of ushering in the destruction of human civilisation in a nuclear holocaust is not considered a vote winner. So, Mason concludes, regretfully: “Of these, only #2 is palatable and would be currently supported by the electorates of Europe and America.”

But Mason has drawn the conclusion that “we have to face the possibility that even #2 might simply provoke another nuclear strike.” Many years ago, they used to say: all roads lead to Rome. Nowadays, it seems, all roads lead to nuclear annihilation. For his own part, Paul is quick to assure us that: “any form of nuclear retaliation is unthinkable. I support nuclear weapons only as a deterrent; once deterrence is ineffective, why gamble with the future of the world?”

The peace-loving Paul Mason would never use nuclear weapons in retaliation. For him, it is unthinkable. So, we can all sleep soundly in our beds. There is only one snag. Mr Mason’s finger is not on the launch button and, as far as we know, nobody has ever asked his opinion as to if, when or how, nuclear weapons will be used. He says he supports nuclear weapons only as a deterrent. But one thing is absolutely clear. The possession of nuclear weapons is only of use as a deterrent precisely insofar as one is prepared to use them in retaliation. Far from being unthinkable, the threat of retaliation is the fundamental premise of every nuclear power in the world, including the United Kingdom. It is only in the imaginary Kingdom of the Pacifist Warmongers that such a contradiction could exist. And for that same reason, nobody except Mr Mason takes it seriously.

Guns before butter!

Marxists do not have one policy for peacetime and another for when war breaks out. But things are very different in the camp of the left reformists. In the past, all lefts, socialists, as well as pacifists, advocated a cut in wasteful arms spending as a means of increasing socially necessary spending on housing, schools and hospitals. But in an article published shortly before the invasion, Mr Mason tells us that this was all wrong. As a trained economist, he has done his sums. And they add up to the following conclusion: what we need is not a reduction in arms expenditure, but, on the contrary, “a sudden and drastic change in the defence budget – e.g. going from 2% to 5% of GDP if faced with a sudden, unforeseen threat.”

Are the British people prepared really to stand shoulder to shoulder with poor, beleaguered Ukraine? Then we must tighten our belts, empty our pockets, and accept the full burden of our responsibilities. Such is the iron logic of the pacifist warmongers. Coupled with the idea that, if Putin defeats Ukraine, he will eye up the rest of Europe for conquest. Never mind that nothing in Russia’s actions or stated war aims suggest this was ever on the cards: we all must prepare to defend ourselves against the Russian menace! One is reminded of the words of the late Hermann Goering, who declared: “Guns before butter! Guns will make us great. Butter will only make us fat.”

Cost of living protest in London Image Alisdare Hickson Wikimedia CommonsWe are in the middle of the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades – what could the British government buy with the kind of money Mason proposes spending on guns? / Image: Alisdare Hickson, Wikimedia Commons

But, having drawn the necessary conclusions from his own sudden and drastic conversion to belligerent militarism, Mason is given pause, asking himself: “Could the UK rapidly expand its defence spending from 2% to 5% of GDP (or higher) in a crisis? Are we prepared to conceive defence spending as an investment with socio-economic multipliers?” An excellent question! But he does not furnish us with a suitably satisfying answer. So allow us to fill in the gaps for him.

We are in the middle of the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades, exacerbated by the economic dislocation caused by the Ukraine war. The working class is suffering greater and greater deprivations all over the world. In this context, what could the British government buy with the kind of money Mason proposes spending on guns? Currently, 2 percent of Britain’s GDP is spent on defence, totalling about £45 billion. Not an insignificant amount for a small country that can hardly be seen as a superpower in the world. Increasing that amount to 5 percent of GDP would come to a total of about £110 billion, a truly staggering figure.

What could be done with such a substantial amount of cash? Well, the National Health Service, which was already suffering from years of austerity, has been plunged into an existential crisis by the COVID-19 pandemic. God knows Britain is in crying need of beds, hospitals, doctors and nurses. What could Mason’s war chest buy the NHS? At the upper end, a 2013 plan to revamp the Royal Liverpool University Hospital was costed at £429m. We could cover that cost 250 times over with £110 billion. Or, on a more modest scale, a small, recently constructed hospital in Cornwall cost around £7 million. We could build 15,000 of them for the same amount.

Britain also faces a severe housing crisis, which is reaching the level of a national scandal. The average cost of building a four-bedroom house is £348,000. We could afford to build 300,000 with the money that Paul the Peacemaker wishes to donate to the generals. How about in the education sector? The average cost of a secondary school is £30 million. That means that 3,500 new schools could be built for the equivalent of 5 percent of GDP. We could go on. And let us note, Mr Mason considers that figure “as the starting point” – he would like to spend even more! A future Labour government, he says, “should commission research showing where Britain needs to build new defence industrial capacity – both actual and latent – and how a mixture of state funding and private-sector investment can be mobilised to create it.”

One would have thought that under the leadership of Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour Party has moved quite far enough to the right. But not far enough for Paul Mason, who has now abandoned any pretence of standing for socialism in any shape or form. Instead of advocating for investment in services, infrastructure, and the means of life, Mason would like a Starmer-led Labour government to invest heavily in instruments of death. More heavily, in fact, than any other Western government, as a proportion of GDP.

Mr Mason has completely abandoned a class position, and consequently gone over, bag and baggage, to the side of the most reactionary wing of the bourgeoisie and imperialism. There is a terrible warning here. Once you abandon the class position, you enter onto a slippery slope that inevitably ends in the poisonous swamp of betrayal and reaction. There is no end to it.

No war between peoples, no peace between classes!

It goes without saying that wars are terrible. We do not require the services of the petty-bourgeois pacifists to enlighten us on that subject. Nevertheless, wars have the undoubted advantage of sharpening all the contradictions in society and in politics. They mercilessly tear off the veil that serves to conceal the reality behind hypocritical phrases, and expose all the weaknesses of the petty-bourgeois reformists and ‘lefts’, who hasten to join the warlike imperialist bandwagon. They have allowed their judgement to be clouded by the unprecedented campaign of propaganda, as well as the deafening and very effective information war, which is the most significant aspect of the present conflict.

This unprecedented avalanche of propaganda has been highly successful in conditioning the attitudes of people in the West. But Marxists cannot allow themselves to be influenced by official propaganda. Above all, we must stand firmly against all the attempts of the ruling class and its hired media to drag the working class into the camp of the imperialist warmongers or participate, directly or indirectly, in any kind of national unity bloc on the war issue. When Mason says ‘we must choose a side’, he means one imperialist bloc or the other. We stake our position firmly on the side of the international working class, whose interests are not in the least served by the continuation and escalation of this barbaric war.

The immediate prospect is one of austerity, rising prices, poverty and privation in every country. The future that capitalism offers the working class consists of constant wars, death and misery for millions of men, women and children. As Lenin said: a world of “horror without end”. The only way to avert such an outcome, and chart a course toward a decent existence for humanity, is for the working class in every country to wage a relentless struggle against their own warmongering capitalist class. Only on the basis of genuine international solidarity and socialist revolution, can we bring down the rotten system that makes war inevitable.