Thursday, September 29, 2022

Revisiting the events of Jan 6

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...if the fear of falling into error is the source of a mistrust in Science, which in the absence of any such misgivings gets on with the work itself and actually does know, it is difficult to see why, conversely, a mistrust should not be placed in this mistrust, and why we should not be concerned that this fear of erring is itself the very error.  (Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, Introduction)

by Alex Steiner 

A little over a year ago we reprinted an article by Bryan Palmer on the events of Jan 6.  The article was titled, The Insurrection that Wasn't.  One cannot help but be struck by the irony of that title given all we have learned over the past year about the depth of Trump’s aborted coup attempt as a result of the investigative work of the House Jan 6 Committee as well as other ongoing investigations.  Clearly, we have to admit that the emphasis of the article, captured in that title, was off base.  After all the information that has come out since, it can hardly be denied that Trump and his accomplices did indeed conspire to stage a Presidential coup in order to nullify the results of the 2020 Presidential election and maintain power through a Bonapartist dictatorship built around the cult of Trump.  This was and remains a watershed moment in the history of the American republic. There has been nothing like it since the Civil War and it is not by accident that much of the symbolism of the failed insurrection of Jan 6th borrowed from the heraldry of the Confederacy.

The attempted coup was made possible by the rapid transformation of the Republican Party from what was traditionally a Center Right party into a neo-fascist authoritarian party.  This still a work in progress but it is very far along and clearly there is no going back to the Republican Party that our parents and grandparents knew.  The historian of Italian fascism, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, speaking of the recent election victory of the Italian neo-fascist Giorgia Meloni, made the following point about the trajectory of the Republican Party,

…the GOP, I’ve been saying for a long time, has to be seen as a far-right authoritarian party in the model of European parties. And what’s going on right now, we’re having — history is being made before our eyes. The party is remaking itself to support whatever form of illiberal rule it wants to have in the United States. And, of course, we’re seeing this at the state level, in Texas and especially in Florida.

And so, when a party is remaking itself, it pushes some people out, and these are, let’s say, moderates, like Cheney, Kinzinger, all these — all the people who were anti-Trump. And who is being invited in? Lawless people, violent people. That’s why, if you want to get ahead in the GOP, your campaign ad has to have you and an assault rifle. People who participated in January 6th — criminals — are being invited to run for office, and actual extremists, like Mark Finchem in Arizona. He is an Oath Keeper. He is very proud. He’s very public about being an Oath Keeper, a member of the violent extremist group. And so, he is now the Arizona candidate for secretary of state. So, getting ahead in today’s GOP, being an extremist is a help to that, because they are remaking themselves as a far-right party. So there are going to be, I predict, a lot of interchange between Meloni’s neofascists and the GOP. [1]

 

 

It should also be emphasized that a major contributor to the Jan 6 coup attempt was the subservience of the Democratic Party to the corporate elite and their abandonment of the social contract with the working class that was central to the coalition built by the Democratic Party since Roosevelt’s New Deal.  This created a political vacuum where millions of working-class victims of neo-liberalism felt betrayed by their putative defenders and abandoned the Democratic Party in droves.  Many of those disinherited working-class voters gave one last chance to Barack Obama. When Obama’s “Hope and Change” turned out to be nothing but desolation and more pain embodied in the opioid crisis that devastated so many working class communities, the feeling of abandonment by the Democratic Party and the liberal elite turned into rage.  This was a perfect storm for a demagogue like Trump who manipulated the enraged middle class and working-class masses into the social basis for the MAGA movement.  The psychology behind convincing tens of millions that the billionaire and corrupt businessman Trump was a genuine anti-establishment spokesman and represented the interests of the working class was already anticipated years earlier in Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?

The evisceration of the norms of bourgeois democratic forms of rule and the plunge into authoritarianism and a revival of fascism is not limited to the United States of course but is part of a well-documented international phenomenon.  It is the political expression of the global crisis of capitalism which has evolved into a crisis of legitimacy. It is the final chapter of a decades long process that has seen the atomization of the working class, the practical disappearance of class solidarity and the near complete isolation of the left from the working class. Given these conditions, it was almost inevitable that right wing faux populism would step in to fill the vacuum.

Seen in this context the events of Jan 6, as well as the continuing efforts by Trump and the Republican Party to overthrow the 2020 election should not be a complete surprise.  In fact, since Jan 6 the authoritarian turn of the Republican Party has hardened.  Whereas the Republican Party has been a minority party for decades, winning office only as a result of gerrymandering and relying on the anti-democratic institutions enshrined in the Constitution to stay in power, a document drawn up by 18th century landowners and slaveholders, they had in previous years tried to hide this inconvenient truth from the public.  No more! Today they proudly broadcast their desire to overturn elections, to deprive millions of the right to vote and to impose draconian legislation through an unelected Supreme Court that takes away rights that had been previously won in long struggles. With its overturning of the Roe v Wade decision the Supreme Court has stepped back into the role it has harbored for the great majority of its 200 plus years existence, a bastion of reaction and protector of privilege, a role only briefly interrupted by the short interregnum of the liberal Earl Warren Supreme Court of 1950s and 1960s. This was nicely summarized by the historian Alan Singer,

Politically conservative decisions by the Supreme Court have been the norm, with possibly the only exception being the Warren Court of the 1950s and 1960s. From 1840 until the Civil War the Supreme Court was a pro-slavery Court dominated by Southerners Roger Taney (Maryland), James Wayne (Georgia), John Catron (Tennessee), John McKinley (Alabama), Peter Daniel (Virginia), and John Campbell (Alabama). After the Civil War the Court dismantled civil rights protections for formally enslaved Africans and free Blacks with a series of decisions culminating in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Eric Foner argues in The Second Founding,” the post-Civil War 13, 14, and 15th Amendments “were nullified in the generation after Reconstruction, that, little by little, the rights - the right to equal protection of the law, the right to vote, things like that - were just taken away in the South with the acquiescence of the Supreme Court of the United States.” Post-Civil War Supreme Courts through the 1930s were also notoriously pro-capital and anti-labor, even declaring unconstitutional early New Deal legislation aimed at addressing conditions during the Great Depression. [2]

The Dobb’s decision overturning Roe was therefore no anomaly but a return by the Supreme Court to its proper home. Although the Court has been moving in a reactionary direction for many years there is no longer even the fig leaf of pretense that the Court represents some version of impartial justice.  It has more than anything else in recent memory punctured the liberal myth that the “moral arc of the universe is long but that it bends towards justice”.  These words, originally penned by the radical abolitionist Rev. Theodore Parker, have been repeated by Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. While those words are inspiring, they can also become a rational for complacency and duplicity as they did when Obama uttered them.  The negation of those illusions may be the single most positive effect of the Supreme Court decision.

Returning to our consideration of the Palmer essay, one problem was its concentration on the amateurish and sometimes comical as well a tragic antics of the Jan 6 mob that stormed the Capitol.  To be fair, given the lack of information available at the time, Palmer could hardly be blamed for concentrating on this aspect of the Jan 6 events.  It was also to Palmer’s credit that he exposed the indignation of the Democrats in relation to Jan 6 for what it was, an opportunity to demonstrate their fealty to the bourgeois state and its repressive institutions. They never missed a chance to wail against the violation of the sanctity of the “People’s House”. This hypocrisy on the part of the Democrats is a continuing saga.  The FBI raid on Trump’s residence in Mar-a-Lago has been used by the Democrats as an opportunity to pay homage to that most reactionary institution of the American police state.  This is the same FBI that has been responsible for the murder and false imprisonment of tens of thousands of political dissidents over the decades.  And their colors have not changed as witnessed by their recent raid on the offices of the African People’s Socialist Party.  We have yet to hear any prominent Democratic politician say anything negative about this latest atrocity of the FBI.

But for all that we now know that the mob that attacked the Capitol was only one element of a complicated scheme to overturn the election and far from the most important element. The real nature of the conspiracy could only be discerned in hindsight from testimony of those who were privy to the behind the scenes plotting.  It is in now clear that Palmer, and us, attributed far too much import to Trump’s penchant for acting out in a kind of primal rage without any strategy.  It is true enough that Trump’s sociopathy manifests itself in bouts of rage and even violence, but what was not known at the time were the plans directed by his close lieutenants to use the chaotic attack on the Capitol as a pretext for declaring a State of Emergency.

There was in fact a months-long plan hatched long before the election by Trump and his inner circle to overturn the election.  The first chapter was the legal phase where the counting of ballots in many constituencies was challenged in court.  When Trump lost all those court cases the next phase kicked in, the attempt to convince state legislatures controlled by Republicans to invalidate votes and to name hand-picked Electors who would vote for Trump regardless of the outcome of the popular vote.  When that looked like it would fail, the next plan was to pressure the Vice President, Mike Pence, to refuse to certify the election and send the outcome of the election to Congress or the courts where the Republicans would prevail.  When Pence refused to go along the mob was released to spread mayhem.  And while there was certainly amateurish posturing by the mob, there were also within its ranks highly trained fascists armed to the teeth and looking to assassinate members of Congress. As it turned out those who thought that the coup consisted of this mob were not looking in the right place.  The mob as dangerous as it was, was never a serious candidate for overthrowing the United State government and taking power even given the crippling of the Capitol police and the refusal by Trump’s man in the Pentagon to intervene with National Guard troops.  Trump and his inner circle were well aware that the mob could not by itself effectuate a regime change.  But what they were hoping for was to use the mob as an excuse to declare a national emergency and martial law, giving Trump the pretext he needed to overturn the election.  

In addition to revising our estimate of the level of coordination between the legal and extra-legal, i.e., insurrectionary actions of Trump’s phalanx of rioters on Jan 6, it is also worth revisiting some of the prognostications in Palmer’s essay, prognostications that were written in the heat of events as they were unfolding.  For instance, take this one.

Impeachment has proceeded, but its finale in a Senate trial has been deliberately delayed by Republicans, who are happy enough, under the circumstances, to have the Democrats carry the impeachment can. Biden is anything but enthralled with the prospect of an impeachment trial and would much prefer that Trump simply fade away into the Mar-a-Logo night. If enough GOP Senators get on board with the ultimate Congressional sanction of convicting Trump in the forthcoming impeachment trial, it will be because there are those among the Republican elected elite who want to cut the Party loose from Trump. This will unleash an unseemly raft of repugnant pretenders to the throne and allow vindictive venalities like Mitch McConnell a chance to settle a score with an ex-President who did them dirt. If, however, impeachment fails to get the two-thirds Senate majority vote required to convict – which appears likely – it will allow Trump to yet again claim, however tortuously, victory.  [3]

 

Palmer wrote this essay after Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives but before the delayed impeachment trial in the Senate.  There is nothing he needs to apologize for here given what was known at the time.  But given the greater understanding we now have we can revisit this period with better clarity. It seemed to many for a moment that there was a possibility of Republicans breaking with Trump.  Clearly the Democrats hoped for this outcome.  In so doing they were relying on the tried-and-true formula that has guided American politics since the post-war era, that when the dangers of extremism are exposed, the political compass will move toward the center.  On this was based the hope that some kind of post-Trump Republican party would be able to collaborate with Democrats on behalf of the “greater good”, i.e., the defense of capitalism and U.S. hegemony internationally.   But what was not noticed was that the movement to the center was no longer the guiding light of American politics. The rules had changed and sometime in the past few years a nodal point was reached.  Movement to the center turned into its opposite.  The more Trump acted against the rules, the more outrageous his actions became, the more support he garnered.  The hope for “responsible Republicans” replacing the Trumpists in the Republican Party was seen to be an illusion. The purge of dissident Republicans like Liz Cheney from the ranks of the Republican Party is now almost complete. The Democrats held onto these illusions long after their due date because to acknowledge the reality of a neo-fascist Republican Party implied a political battle they are unable and unwilling to confront. The logical conclusion to draw from this is that the fight against Trumpist reaction must be undertaken independent of and opposed to the Democratic Party.  Only an extreme Left - “extreme” in the sense that it brooks no illusions in capitalism and openly calls for a new socialist society - can pose a viable alternative to the extreme Right.   

While the attempted coup orchestrated by Trump and his allies failed due to the refusal of the national security state and the military to go along with Trump, there is no assurance that another attempt, this time better prepared, could not succeed in the future.  That being said, talk of a “fascist coup” as some left groups have done, is a formula for spreading confusion rather than clarity.  If what Trump and the MAGA movement represent is fascism, it is definitely a different variety of fascism than the classical fascism of the 1930’s.  What Trump and the Republicans are trying to achieve in the U.S. has more in common with the “illiberal democracy” of Orbán‘s Hungary than the fascism of Mussolini’s Italy.  As the historian Andrew Gawthorpe has observed,

In some ways Orbán resembles Trump, but in the eyes of many conservatives he’s better understood as the man they wished Trump would be. Where Trump was a thrice-married playboy who boasted of sleeping with porn stars and managed to lose the 2020 election, Orbán seems both genuinely committed to upholding conservative cultural values and has grimly consolidated control over his country, excluding the left from power indefinitely.

Among the terrifying implications of the American right’s embrace of Orbán is that it shows that the right would be willing to dismantle American democracy in exchange for cultural and racial hegemony. [4]

But while the methods of achieving power and the social basis for the neo-fascism of the 21st century is very different than its predecessors in the first half of the 20th century – a topic that would require a separate article - there is also an ideological kinship between these two phenomenon that should not be ignored; extreme nationalism, xenophobia, racism, anti-semitism, anti-intellectualism, misogyny, the systematic employment of violence against political opponents and the destruction of class solidarity and all independent institutions of the working class. Furthermore, today’s neo-fascists have worked for decades to rewrite the history of fascism and normalize the fascist butchers of the 1930’s while demonizing their left-wing opponents. This is the common heritage that unites Giorgia Meloni with Steve Bannon and Victor Orbán.





We should learn from this that sometimes one has to revisit immediate reactions to events.  It is no crime to admit your estimation of a particular event was one-sided and revise it as new facts emerge.  That in fact is the very model of the scientific method.  

Epilogue:

Marxism does not consist in a set of formulas whereby one can predict the future.  While it is necessary to anticipate tendencies at work in the current situation on a national and international scale, it is not possible to work out in advance which of the possibilities inherent in a fluid dynamic will prevail.  These must be tested through practice and observation.  Those who claim that their perspectives are “always confirmed”, who never acknowledge a misstep or a reversal, are a sad caricature of Marxism. 

We anticipated in general the direction of the Trump presidency shortly after the 2016 election.  We wrote,

The crisis of liberalism is also the crisis of liberal democracy. The incoming Trump administration will be fundamentally different from its predecessors: it will be an authoritarian government, rule by a strong man… The cancer of social inequality has eaten up liberal democracy. This doesn't mean that Trump is omnipotent, quite the contrary. It's easy to foresee many and varied crises that will afflict the new administration and possibly even lead to Trump's impeachment. But whatever happens personally to Trump, there will be no going back to “the days of decency”. Either the system will continue its descent into authoritarianism and worse, or a new, social, democracy will emerge from the ruins of its liberal predecessor.[5]

But we had no way of knowing exactly how this turn to authoritarianism would play out.  Immediate reactions to events, while valuable and necessary, have to be revisited in light of new information.  Failure to do so is a sign of formulaic thinking, the very opposite of a dialectical approach.  A perfect example of formulaic thinking can be found in the following assessment from the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site, published three days before Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. They belittled the possibility of an invasion, writing,

In its report on the planned summit, the Washington Post wrote, “Although senior U.S. officials say they believe that Putin has made a decision to invade, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement that U.S. officials ‘are committed to pursuing diplomacy until the moment an invasion begins.’ She confirmed that Biden accepted the invitation again, if an invasion hasn’t happened.’”

This statement is absurd. If Putin had already decided to invade, as Biden claimed at his press conference on Friday, Putin would not be inviting Biden to a summit. Can one seriously believe that having given the final go-ahead to a vast military operation, Putin can simply shut it down with a wave of his hand? [6]

As it turned out the WSWS International Editorial Board was dead wrong, while the public pronouncements from U.S. intelligence were correct, a Russian invasion of the Ukraine was imminent.  That in itself should not be a reason to berate the WSWS Editorial Board.  Lots of pundits, many of whom were serious students of Ukraine and Russia, were caught flat-footed when Putin launched the invasion on February 24.  And while it is true that when the CIA makes public their assessment of an impending military crisis they often lie or distort, in this case they achieved their goal, spreading anti-Russian sentiment, by simply reporting the truth, that Putin had indeed mobilized the Russian military for an imminent invasion. 

The real problem comes when one refuses to own up to a mistaken assessment or even acknowledge that it ever happened.  Unlike some of the pundits who were caught off guard, and who did some serious re-examination of their assumptions, the World Socialist Web Site continued as if nothing had happened.   This mode of operation is par for the course for this sectarian outfit.  You can search the archives of the WSWS as much as you like, and you will never find an admission that they were wrong about anything.   

One hopes that our reassessment of the events of Jan. 6 provides some insight into the genuine science of Marxism as opposed to its dogmatic caricature.

 

Alex Steiner

 



[1] Interview by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, Sept 26, 2022. https://www.democracynow.org/2022/9/26/giorgia_meloni_italy_prime_minister_fascism#transcript

 

[2] The Dobbs Decision Punctures the Supreme Court's Sacred Mythology, Alan J. Singer, https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/183297

 

[3] 01/06/21: The Insurrection that Wasn't, Bryan Palmer, http://forum.permanent-revolution.org/2021/03/010621-insurrection-that-wasnt.html

 

[4] Conservatives want to make the US more like Hungary. A terrifying thought. Andrew Gawthorpe, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/may/20/conservatives-republicans-cpac-hungary-orban

 

[5] Trump and the crisis of liberalism, Frank Brenner, http://forum.permanent-revolution.org/2016/12/trump-and-crisis-of-liberalism.html

 


Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Review: A useful retelling of the catastrophic Currowan fire

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Review: A useful retelling of the catastrophic Currowan fire.

#Australia #Bushfires #Climate Change #Book Reviews

Owen Hsieh

Currowan: The Story of a Fire and a Community During Australia's Worst Summer

Bronwyn Adcock
20 Sep 2021
Black Inc.
288 pp





Currowan is a dramatic history of the Currowan bushfire which tore through New South Wales with devastating effect in the 2019-2020 fire season. The fire began with a lightning strike in November 2019 in remote bushland. It quickly grew out of control, scaling up to burn through half a million hectares, destroy hundreds of homes and lead to the death of three people. The fire was only extinguished in February 2020, after heavy rains bought flooding to the Eastern most part of NSW.

Bronwyn Adcock is a very competent journalist and author. She is a long-term NSW resident, living in a forested semi-rural area hard hit by the fire. Her own experience, and connections to the land and community inform a visceral, raw retelling of the events leading up to the natural disaster, throughout the period and its aftermath.

In her prologue Adcock describes the endemic conditions of drought and heatwave in NSW. In a warming and drying climate, extreme fires will increase in both frequency and magnitude. No exception to the rule, the Currowan fire was at one point “880 square kilometres in size. Unlike normal fires which move in one direction it was burning on all points of the compass – reaching out to multiple communities” (p. 77).

Iconic image of 11 year old Finn Burns piloting a small boat used by his family to flee the flames on land. 


Documenting the events of the fire, from its discovery, the extensive spread to its eventual control, Adcock provides something of a panoramic view of the fire-fighting effort, with interviews from high ranking fire captains, frontline fire-fighters, farmers, and various other community members. People survived with little in the way of government support, largely by dint of their grit and ingenuity. These are amazing tales.

As one example; Adcock writes about local residents fitting their trucks out with small water tanks and improvised portable firefighting units (cubes). As the RFS became overwhelmed these DIY operators saved many lives and homes.



 “Late one night, Dave and his sons raced out to help an elderly man they knew whose home in the forests was about to be swamped by the fire. Debbie stayed in town, trying unsuccessfully to get a fire truck sent out – but with their cubes the boys managed to save the house and the man’s life.”


In the concluding chapters, Adcock writes about the clean-up effort, the emotional toll of visiting her ‘partially damaged’ property, seeing the associated loss of community and the ‘eerie stillness’: “There was no sign of wildlife, not even a single bird – the silence was so loud as to be deafening”. The sense of loss and grief is palpable.



Adcock's discussion of the technical aspects of firefighting is fascinating. She explains the phenomena of Crowning fires – in which the fire races rapidly through the tree canopy, and ember attacks as the hot air from the fire throws burning branches and leaves high into the air and can light new spot fires up to one kilometre in front. She even includes eyewitness accounts of the rare Pyrocumulonimbus phenomena in which

 

  “…hot air from an intense fire burning over a large area rises up in a smoke column, drawing in cooler air, before punching through the stratosphere upwards of 15km above the ground. It’s here that the cool air and latent heat combine to create a thunderstorm inside the smoke plume, producing lightning, turbulent winds and vertical blasts of air that hit the ground. Under such intense conditions, fires can spread rapidly in any direction, embers fall instead of rain, and spot fires start dozens of kilometres away. Fire tornados have even been known to form.” (p. 99)



Adcock also discusses the efficacy of the various methods of control – backburning areas ahead of the fire to deprive the fire of fuel, while blacking out the flare ups. She also discusses wet and dry fire-fighting methods and references changes to wind speed and direction. Adcock frequently refers to the importance of utilising aerial support such as water bombers to control the fire.
 
She questions the efficacy of leasing large air tankers from the northern hemisphere, an increasingly unviable strategy given there is increasing competition for fire-fighting resources in a warming climate globally. This is really the main thrust of the book, polemicising for greater aerial resources.


She gives one example of a spot fire starting in a remote, deep forested Gully north of her farm, despite its quick detection, and their pleas to RFS air traffic control for resources to initiate rapid initial attack, their request is denied and the spot fire grows to a large uncontainable fire that rampages through the bush, snowballing to open a new front which threatens lives and homes (p. 89).

While she makes many valid and useful comments exposing the missed opportunity with the lack of aerial support, that isn't the only opportunity for improvement. The fire brigades Adcock met with are heavily reliant on a small, aging volunteer force using outdated equipment.





Adcock is a very gifted writer and conveys well the emotional impact of living through a catastrophic bushfire. She uses her long-standing ties to community to draw insight and capture the impact of the fires on a broad swathe of society – rather than simply her own household. She also explains the technical component of firefighting very well.

While Adcock urges greater resourcing and aerial support for fire-fighting, she has little to say on mitigating and averting climate change, apart from a brief mention of “the climate wars”, bemoaning “a decade of lost time, where a persistent campaign was waged by vested interests in the fossil fuel industry fanning scepticism about the existence of climate change” (p. 16). It would appear that she has accepted that idea that climate change is here to stay and is unavertable as good coin. This is to the book’s detriment.

The fires of 2019-2020 were catastrophic in every sense of the word and the brutal images of the fires will be burned into public consciousness for a very long time. The towns of Mallacoota and Cobargo have become household names and are forever associated with the disaster. The dystopian images show us what the future entails for many country towns across Australia if firm action is not taken to mitigate and avert the worst of climate change.


Owen Hsieh is an independent Marxist living in Western Australia, an avid bibliophile with a special interest in Eastern European Literature. Favourite authors include Dovlatov, Bulgakov, Pelevin, Serge and others. 

Twitter @OwenHsieh3


Friday, April 22, 2022

War in the Ukraine: the socialist response, Part III

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Hospital in Mariupol destroyed by Russian missile



The enemy is nationalism  by Frank Brenner

Note: This is the third and concluding part of a series on the Russia-Ukraine war.

Link to Part I

Link to Part II


This war is a brutal demonstration of the reactionary essence of nationalism. Putin’s rationale for the invasion is ‘Eurasianism’, but this isn’t much more than a Slavophile variant of right-wing populism. Instead of Trump’s MAGA, Putin is pushing to Make Russia Great Again. Of course there are many differences in the details and in Trump and Putin’s back stories, but the political thrust is similar. Two critical factors are at play here: neoliberal capitalism mired in crisis since its 2008 heart attack, generating ever greater levels of social inequality, and a politically atomized working class. This has made for the political vacuum that right wing populism exploits with nationalism, which lets you rail against ‘elites’ and ‘globalism’ but never against global capitalism; and lets you appeal to a collective identity based on nationality or language, religion, race etc., but never based on class. Populist nationalism is designed to harness the widespread sense of grievance of the masses in order to direct it against scapegoats. Since it can’t end or even lessen class exploitation and social inequality, populist nationalism’s objective is constantly to restoke that sense of grievance. Conspiracy theories are tailor made for such a political agenda, and they thrive in the toxic atmosphere of social media. Ultimately the only way out of this deadlock (short of socialist revolution) is an eruption of murderous violence: populism turns into the annihilation of the populace, or at least of those ‘others’ set up as scapegoats: immigrants, minorities, Muslims, Jews, gays and lesbians, Roma people, socialists. Directed outwards, as for instance when ‘Make Russia Great Again’ collides with ‘Make American Great Again’, that violence manifests as war.

It is a defining feature of our times that humanity faces existential threats (the pandemic, climate catastrophe and now the renewed threat of nuclear war) that can only be overcome through global cooperation. And yet the establishment politics of every capitalist society resists that – and the more pressing the need for that cooperation, the more tenacious the resistance, even to the point of blowing up the world.

Unpack the Ukraine war, and on every side, you find imperialist and nationalist insanity. This is as true of NATO’s aggression against Russia as it is of Putin’s filthy war. It is also true of Ukraine’s own politics, which since the Orange Revolution of 2004-5 has offered nothing to Ukrainian workers and young people apart from broken promises, widespread corruption and the unbroken dominance of oligarchs, no matter which political clique is in power. In all these years the only substantive issue has been choosing which imperialist master Ukraine will submit to. No doubt many workers and middle class people have illusions in the European Union, as was the case in many eastern European countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, discriminatory policies by the post-Maidan regimes in Kiev have alienated Russian speakers in the eastern part of the country; indeed had the invasion not happened, there was a good chance the current president, Zelensky, would have lost the next election to a candidate whose base of support was from those regions, joined by a sizable number of disaffected Ukrainian speakers. Not that such a result would have achieved much more than tilting the political balance of Ukraine a bit towards Russia and away from the West, and in any case that possibility has now been foreclosed by the invasion. You get the impression of a country caught between two dead-ends, shuffling from one to the other with every election cycle. The invasion has generated fervent patriotic unity around Zelensky, but that probably won’t last very long after the trauma of the war is over.

In the West the mainstream political narrative is that this is a war of good versus evil, in Russia it’s the same with the sides reversed. Bob Dylan’s fine antiwar ballad, With God on Our Side, was written in reaction to the Vietnam War, but its message is still relevant. Each stanza covers a different American war, always with the bitterly ironic refrain that we had “God on Our Side”. Here’s the stanza on the Cold War, which sounds eerily prescient today:

I've learned to hate the Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It's them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side

You could think of Dylan’s song as being a riff on a famous line coined by Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” The powers-that-be have never been comfortable with this bit of unvarnished truth, but it applies full force to all the major actors in the Ukraine war. Why did Putin invade? Certainly security concerns about NATO and the imperialist ambitions of Russian capitalism were primary reasons but it’s also clear that domestic political considerations played a significant role. Putin only won his last election through widespread voter fraud, and the measures his government has taken since, especially the wholesale downsizing of the public pensions system, were hugely unpopular. In light of that, it seems evident that Putin is a patriotic scoundrel looking to solidify his precarious hold on power by taking refuge in a war. But this is also true of Joe Biden. His domestic agenda is stalled in Congress, his poll numbers are way down because of inflation and there is every likelihood that his party will lose badly in this year’s mid-term elections, which in turn will leave him a lame-duck president. And so, while the geo-political interests of US imperialism were undoubtedly the key factor in shaping US policy, Biden is yet another patriotic scoundrel who finds it convenient at this time to take refuge in a war, at least by proxy. And finally there is the Ukrainian president Zelensky, also facing a likely electoral defeat. Before the final crisis that led to war, his government had become increasingly reckless and provocative in its relations with Russia, particularly with its sabotaging of the Minsk II agreements, which were supposed to defuse the bloody stand-off in the Donbass region. (Socialists in Ukraine who criticized Zelensky on this score eventually had their organizations banned and their publications suppressed.) Zelensky also threatened to abandon the Budapest Accord of 1994, which raised the prospect of Ukraine re-acquiring nuclear weapons. Zelensky may have been bluffing about this, but it was the rhetorical equivalent of playing with matches in a room full of open gasoline cans.

And that is the point. It’s not that the individual motives of these leaders are decisive on their own, it’s rather that the politics of nationalism and the economics of global capitalism have saturated the world with dangerously toxic fumes. Each leader pursues their own national and political self-interest, each sees their policies as ‘pragmatic’ and ‘realistic’ – and yet the end result is mass slaughter, cities turned to rubble and the nightmare prospect of nuclear war. It is the revolutionary socialists, for so long disparaged as hopeless utopians, who are the only true realists. To operate as a ‘pragmatist’ inside a lethal social system is to become an enabler of apocalypse.

A few words about the right of nations to self-determination. Socialists defend that as a democratic right, and those leftists who support Putin’s invasion are betraying socialist principles. But for socialists, democratic rights are not abstractions or absolutes. We are ‘class reductionists’, a term of abuse directed at Marxists by the identity politics crowd which we should proudly plead guilty to. Democratic rights can’t be defended outside the struggle against capitalism. Separate the two and you end up, to take a striking example, like Black Lives Matter, a mass protest movement against racism that was co-opted by political and corporate elites with breathtaking ease.

The Ukrainian masses will never be able to determine their own future within a capitalist Europe. Hopes for a better life through membership in the European Union are misplaced, more a matter of glitzy pop culture images and bourgeois political propaganda than hard facts. Many in eastern Europe now look back on the Soviet era with some nostalgia for a time when social necessities like health care and access to education were guaranteed, despite the heavy hand of Stalinist state repression. If Ukrainian workers want to see what their future in the EU would be like, they need only look at the economic shock therapy imposed on Greece in 2015. Here is our description at the time of what Greek workers and middle class people were facing:

 

The country's debt is 180 percent of its GDP. That is a staggering number, far beyond the realm of the reasonable. You could think of it this way: if everyone in Greece worked for nearly two years but CONSUMED NOTHING, that would repay the debt. Of course, they'd all be dead because they couldn't buy any food. It's almost as if we're in Alice in Wonderland territory, except the story line is much starker and far less entertaining. Of course, that isn't quite what the European elites are demanding of Greece. No, all they want the Greek government to do is generate a 2% or 3% annual surplus for the foreseeable future, with that surplus being skimmed off to repay the banks. Which sounds reasonable, except it would be the kind of reason only Alice's Queen of Hearts would appreciate. It means the government will be stripped of all its disposable income: it will have nothing to reinvest in a country that has already endured a depression for six years and where official unemployment sits at 25%. It will mean, in other words, ongoing austerity for the foreseeable future. How long is that future? Here is an answer from a recent comment by the BBC's economics editor Robert Peston: “It would take around half a century for Greek public sector debt to fall to a level regarded as sustainable.” Then Peston adds: “A half century of austerity? In what modern democracy would that be regarded as a realistic option?” [1]

 

Seven years later not much has changed: Greece remains in a state of perpetual debt peonage. In the event of a global recession, which is all but certain as a result of the Ukraine war and the sanctions against Russia, economies like Greece will face collapse and its government will have hardly any resources to cushion the impact. Or look at the United States, the world’s richest country, where the income of billionaires rises exponentially while 40 percent of Americans – 130 million people – don’t have $400 in the bank if needed for an emergency. This is the grim reality behind the shiny fantasies of the American Dream.

Given all that, we can draw a clear conclusion: national self-determination without socialism is nationalism. And that can only produce the grotesque social inequalities of oligarch rule and lead eventually to the horrors of fascism and war. For nations to be truly free, they must be free of capitalism. So the paradox is that self-determination can only be achieved in opposition to nationalism. Traditionally the socialist alternative to the EU has been expressed in the slogan: For a United Socialist States of Europe! It’s an ideal that needs to be revived as a rallying cry for workers throughout Europe.



 A comment by Alex Steiner

 

But how do we get from the embrace of nationalism to international class solidarity?  That is a question that is never asked by those who - in words only - oppose Ukrainian nationalism.  I think Trotsky had something relevant to say about this, when writing in a different context in 1939, he derided sectarians who were opposed to the right of Ukraine to self-determination.   He wrote,

 

The sectarian simply ignores the fact that the national struggle, one of the most labyrinthine and complex but at the same time extremely important forms of the class struggle, cannot be suspended by bare references to the future world revolution. With their eyes turned away from the USSR, and failing to receive support and leadership from the international proletariat, the petty-bourgeois and even working-class masses of Western Ukraine are falling victim to reactionary demagogy. Similar processes are undoubtedly also taking place in the Soviet Ukraine, only it is more difficult to lay them bare. The slogan of an independent Ukraine advanced in time by the proletarian vanguard will lead to the unavoidable stratification of the petty bourgeoisie and render it easier for its lower tiers to ally themselves with the proletariat. Only thus is it possible to prepare the proletarian revolution.[2]

 

In the context of today's invasion of the Ukraine by an imperialist Russia, it is incumbent on the revolutionary left to be the most consistent supporters of Ukraine's right to self-determination and resist Putin's invasion. This is crucial in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian masses who are currently largely under the sway of right wing and fascist forces. At the same time the revolutionary left must warn the Ukrainian masses about the alternative trap of aligning themselves with U.S. imperialism and NATO. The slogan of the day must be ‘neither Moscow nor Washington but an independent socialist Ukraine as a step toward the United Socialist States of Europe.’ That Is the only way to concretize the struggle for internationalism and overcome the destructive force of nationalism.