By Ben Tausz
This article was written in January 2020
When the New Statesman published Paul Mason’s provocatively titled article, “How the left could save Nato”, in late November 2019, it attracted a deserved torrent of criticism.
Left activists unsurprisingly objected to the idea that Labour’s social-democratic policies should be harnessed to shoring up militarism. Mason argued that the turn to industrial investment promised by Corbyn’s Labour would be needed to sustain and rebuild the UK and NATO’s military hardware and capabilities, in order to compete with Vladimir Putin. And that tackling inequality and alienation would bolster the “national unity” needed to establish popular consent for British troops to fight for NATO abroad and for a space-based arms race.
This was the most striking yet in a string of interventions reflecting Mason’s shift from his past as an internationalist in the Marxist group Workers’ Power, to seeking safety in the power of the British state and its military allies. Alongside backing for NATO and UK militarism against Putin, another key theme has been his insistence that we must vote to keep Trident.
In response, he has received sustained criticism from across the Labour left. An observer might therefore assume that opposition to NATO, nukes and militarism had been successfully established as the dominant common sense in the Labour Party under its left-wing leadership – that Mason came to this debate as the embattled underdog.
And yet, from early on, Corbyn’s leadership reconciled itself to maintaining the UK’s nuclear weapons and commitment to NATO – if less wholeheartedly than Mason. Looking at the leading candidates vying to succeed him, it seems unlikely any departure from that stance will be driven from the top of Labour. For all his agitation, Mason’s position is – in practice – already ensconced as party policy. And it’s dead wrong.
During the Cold War, NATO was portrayed as a necessary bulwark against the Kremlin empire’s designs on Western Europe. Today, Mason casts it in an analogous role, protecting against the revived and rebuilding Russian imperialism led by Putin.
Mason is not wrong to take Moscow’s cut-throat imperial intentions seriously. After its historic defeat at the end of the Cold War and the decade of plunder and disarray that followed, Russia’s new ruling class (or perhaps not-so-new, but re-branded) has regrouped and asserts itself once again on the world stage.
Like the Stalinist ruling class during the Cold War, the modern Russian capitalist class’s ambition to compete, and to profit, as a rival Great Power is clear. It sees dominance over a “sphere of influence” as its right. It conducts de facto and even de jure military annexations in neighbouring countries.
And it projects its power further afield. Its intervention in the Syrian civil war, propping up the butcher Assad, has consolidated its strategic position in the region and secured lucrative contracts for Russian capital.
But for socialist internationalists, throwing in our lot with either imperial ruling class against the other was the wrong answer during the Cold War, and it’s the wrong answer today. NATO is not a benign safeguard against Putinist ambitions, but an alliance of imperial powers itself. It exists to facilitate the exercise of hard and soft power in pursuit of the interests of the US capitalist class and its partners.
During the Cold War, NATO was never invoked for public military action, though it played its part in the mutual sabre-rattling and periodic raising of tensions between East and West.
But the secret “Operation Gladio” forces it oversaw across Western Europe – paramilitary networks ready to organise resistance in the event of Soviet invasion – have been credibly accused of involvement with far-right and neo-fascist violence and terrorism, for instance in Italy in the 1970s.
And it is worth examining what NATO’s member states got up to under its protective umbrella. The alliance’s founding charter claims a commitment to peace, democracy and freedom, and Mason’s perspective suggests NATO is a force which will defend smaller nations threatened by an imperial superpower.
Which is absurd. NATO’s member states have spent the organisation’s entire life conducting their own imperial exploits and committing innumerable crimes against the values claimed by their charter.
Mirroring Russian imperialism’s attitude to what it calls its “near abroad”, the US government has continuously and forcefully asserted dominance over its “backyard”. It has gone to great lengths to keep the nations of Latin America in line.
It funded the human-rights-violating Contra rebels in Nicaragua. It aided and abetted coups, like the one by General Pinochet against the elected socialist government of Allende in Chile. And it lent logistical support, torture training, and military aid for right-wing dictatorships and their death squads to suppress and murder political opponents through the 1970s and 80s. Nor did the US government hesitate to project military force and undermine democracy beyond this “backyard”, from Iran to Vietnam.
As for NATO’s European members: France, the UK and Portugal still maintained colonial holdings across large swathes of the world at the founding of the alliance and long after. The NATO charter’s proclaimed values look rather hollow in the light of the racist brutality with which they imposed their rule on those nations and fought against independence movements.
Fighting to maintain their interests in Kenya, Malaysia, Algeria and elsewhere, these powers used concentration and forced-labour camps, forced resettlement, systematic and routine torture, and other war crimes. Closer to home, the British state waged its dirty campaign in Northern Ireland, including collusion with loyalist terrorists.
Since the end of history
And NATO members’ crimes are not a thing of the Cold War past.
Today there is Turkey’s authoritarian, anti-democratic regime and its escalating repression of the Kurds. Mason agrees, and he has said that Turkey may need to be removed from “full membership”. But Turkey is not the end of the problem.
NATO’s other members have continued their imperial exploits, shoring up their interests around the world by waging military interventions like the invasion of Iraq, and propping up despots like the Saudi royals. As for NATO as an organisation, the biggest military engagement of its history has been in Afghanistan, where the war begun by the 2001 invasion is currently grinding bloodily towards the two-decade mark.
It is true that NATO has carried out a small number of actions which socialists should not have opposed: for instance, its intervention in Kosova that disrupted ethnic cleansing. However, even these were not conducted out of simple good intentions.
They were the acts of predatory powers, who happened to do some good while pursuing their own interests. Those powers are clearly comfortable standing aside in many other instances of oppression, occupation and ethnic cleansing, or worse, actively supporting the culprits – for instance, the US and UK involvement in the Saudi war on Yemen.
So it is clearly absurd to place any faith or reliance in this alliance as a guardian of democracy or the freedom of less-powerful nations from imperial domination.
Whose world order?
Mason argues for a commitment to NATO to save the existing “global order” from being overturned by China and Russia. He’s right that maintaining the global status quo is the purpose of NATO – but that’s not something the left can have any interest in saving.
As I’ve argued, NATO’s activities, and the activities of its individual member states under its protective umbrella, are clearly not dictated by liberal, humanitarian priorities. Rather, the fundamental motivations are to enrich those states’ ruling capitalist classes, to maintain their power against their rivals, and to uphold and enforce a state of affairs that helps them do business.
Striving for something better does not mean we must support anything that poses a threat to that order. Some alternatives are just as bad – or worse. But nor do we defend a rotten status quo.
Agreements have set a target for member states’ defence spending to meet a minimum of 2% of their GDP. NATO estimates that its members will have spent $1.04 trillion (£789 billion) on their militaries in 2019, of which the UK will account for £46.6 billion, or 2.13% of our GDP. And this is before the imperial nostalgists get to indulge their post-Brexit military fantasies or Mason gets his orbital arms race.
Just a tenth of the UK’s annual military spending would be enough to reverse all cuts to schools since 2009 and protect their budgets. Less than a twentieth would be enough to eradicate malaria, worldwide, in a generation.
Of course, military spending isn’t why public services have been decimated. That would be to fall for the austerity lie that we’re short on cash, necessitating “hard choices”, cuts and trade-offs. In truth, there’s more than enough wealth in society – it’s just hoarded in the pockets of a small capitalist elite.
Nevertheless, in a society and a world with so much poverty and suffering, spending these sums on an enormous military machine is simply obscene.
And it’s not just a question of cash. What if the skilled hands and ingenious minds of workers at BAE weren’t wasted designing and building implements of destruction? What if the labs, factories and shipyards of the arms industry were taken into public ownership, and they were able to apply their intellect and labour to conceiving and constructing something socially useful?
Rather than Mason’s military Keynesianism, we must raise the call to turn “swords into ploughshares”. We must revive the ideas of the Lucas Aerospace workers who, in the 1970s, drew up plans showing how their munitions factories could be repurposed to produce green technology and medical devices.
Our rulers’ guns won’t protect us
In a world contested between rival great power alliances, is it just dangerous naivety to reject picking a side? Don’t we need to seek protection in one camp or another?
Mason and his co-thinkers clearly think so, invoking variously the looming threats of Russia and China.
Mirroring them, some of the anti-NATO left simply wants us to switch camps. Where the left’s NATO apologists view the Western powers as progressive, or at least as a lesser evil, their counterparts pick Russia or China’s side.
This is even worse. They would have us line up behind a different set of rapacious ruling classes, who even more brutally guard their power and exploit their working classes, and who strive to build empires of their own.
But we cannot rely on our own countries’ ruling classes to protect either our safety or our liberty. Their existence, wealth and power are based on our exploitation. We are of interest to them only insofar as we are of use to them.
In 1940, the majorities of France’s government and National Assembly were willing to submit to Nazi Germany and install a collaborationist hard-right dictatorship. They had the support of a substantial part of the capitalist class, which wanted to cling to as much of its own property and position in society as it could.
In exchange, those below them were thrown to the wolves. Freedoms were crushed; Jews and other minorities were rounded up for the Nazis; the labour movement and left were suppressed; and low-ranking soldiers and other French workers were handed over for forced labour.
Not only is there no guarantee that these vast military machines will protect us from external foes, there is every possibility that they will be used against us. If the capitalists of our own country perceive that we are close to stripping them of their power and privilege, they may well turn the guns on us.
From Germany in 1920 to Chile in 1973, generals – with the backing of conservatives and capitalists – have turned on democratic governments that they deemed too left-wing.
In 1919, the “Liberal” government sent 10,000 troops with tanks and heavy artillery into Glasgow against a General Strike which had shut down the city demanding a 40 hour work-week. Outrageously, the post-war Attlee government – now so admired by many Labour leftists – also used the military against strikers: soldiers were sent across picket lines as strike-breaking labour 18 times between 1945 and 1951.
Socialists who accept and embrace militarism should take care. They may be digging their own graves.
Neither Washington nor Moscow
So, socialist internationalism must reject both our own rulers’ camp and those of their rivals. We need a “third camp” politics that doesn’t lean on any of our countries’ ruling classes.
We aim to build cross-border solidarity between workers and oppressed people, based on our shared common interest. To knit together an international force ultimately capable of standing for itself, against all our rulers, exploiters and oppressors.
We can look to the example of the mutinous working-class German conscripts who helped to end World War One and sparked their country’s revolutionary democratisation. They turned on their officers and ultimately on the state, refusing to continue sacrificing themselves or firing on “enemies” who they recognised as fellow workers.
During the Cold War, socialists expressed this attitude with the slogan: “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”. We can say the same today to both the NATO supporters and the Putin apologists.
In this spirit, socialists simply cannot countenance the use or maintenance of weapons of mass destruction.
The logic of “mutually assured destruction” is that one country’s ruling class deters the other’s ruling class from attacking, by threatening to annihilate millions of the other’s civilians. But socialism lives and dies by international working-class solidarity. Building that solidarity simply isn’t compatible with even pretending that we might be willing to perform such an act against members of our own class.
Indeed, if the left enters government in a nuclear-armed state, our principles ought to be obvious enough that it would be impossible to convincingly make such a pretence. Other states would know that there would be no way we could bring ourselves to follow through, completely nullifying the deterrent.
In any case, the ramping-up of tensions by mutual sabre-rattling is no reliable defence. Even if you are willing to trust that we will never be subject to trigger-happy leaders, we are extremely fortunate that that a slip or misunderstanding hasn’t already unleashed the world’s nuclear arsenal. We have come terrifyingly close on a number of occasions.
Solidarity is our defence
Rather than mutually assured destruction, nationalist reliance on our ruling classes, and imperial pacts, socialists in power will have to make international solidarity key to our defence.
By publicly dismantling the weapons of mass destruction and the standing armies of the capitalist state – instead building democratic workers’ militias – a revolutionary government would declare to the rest of the global working class that we are not their enemies, and on the contrary that we stand with them in their battles against their own rulers, oppressors and exploiters.
We would cut through the toxic bonds of nationalism that might convince workers to kill and die in service of those rulers.
If the ruling classes of other countries threatened us, for sure we would defend ourselves. But our most powerful weapon would not be the threat of nuclear destruction, but solidarity. We would call on their workers and their soldiers to recognise our common interest, reject their bosses’ militarism, and refuse to be sacrificed in their service. We would encourage and assist them to halt the aggression by sabotage and strike – and ultimately to follow our lead and overthrow those rulers.
Of course, a Labour government would not mean socialist revolution but, to a greater or lesser degree, social democracy. The capitalist class would not have been overthrown and we would not be at the stage of tearing up the capitalist state.
Nevertheless, our policy could and must point in this direction: pointedly abandoning the UK’s own imperial policies; stepping aside from the military alliances that tie us to one or other imperial camp; publicly dismantling the UK’s civilian-murdering weapons of mass destruction; and raising a call for international solidarity between the workers and oppressed people of different countries against war.
Their internationalism and ours
Mason has linked his support for nukes and NATO with his opposition to Brexit, applying the anti-Brexit “remain and reform” to NATO. And he has suggested that the issues are connected for his opponents too – pointing to “the old, Stalinist wing of the movement [Corbynism], with its perennial obsessions: opposition to Trident, Nato and the EU”.
Likewise, leadership contender Clive Lewis has highlighted that “there’s a part of the left which is disproportionately powerful in Corbyn’s office and has always seen leaving the EU as part of a longer term project against NATO” (though on Trident he has made it clear he’s against maintaining or using nuclear weapons).
In one sense, they are correct. The likes of Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray cut their teeth in the ultra-Stalinist “Straight Left” wing of the Moscow-aligned Communist Party. They have never clearly renounced those politics. CP opposition to cooperation between Western powers – in both NATO and the proto-EU – was encouraged by the Kremlin ruling class to serve their foreign policy interests and imperialist ambitions.
Nevertheless, while the infamous Milne-Murray-Murphy-McCluskey faction in Labour HQ have energetically supported Brexit, they have not made any serious push for a policy opposing NATO or nuclear weapons. It seems likely that that’s down to a short-termist mix of electoral opportunism, and sectionalism from trade union bureaucrats who equate defending jobs with supporting the arms industry.
As for left-wing Remainers, we absolutely aren’t all lined up with Mason or Lewis on this. Socialist internationalism requires a “remain and transform” attitude to the EU, but that argument can’t be cut-and-pasted into the NATO debate.
For socialists, internationalism is not just when our states do things together. These are states which exist to govern us in the interests of our capitalist classes and to which we are implacably opposed.
The EU is a coordination of capitalist states, for sure. But the political and economic integration of our societies carries crucial benefits for the working class and the socialist project.
By lowering borders and merging our economies, it allows us to move and intermingle and pulls together the working classes of different countries. Despite the limitations of its democratic mechanisms, the EU’s open parliamentary structure provides a platform from which we could promote a shared, cross-border socialist agenda and an arena in which we could fight for it – if we organised to do so.
NATO, on the other hand, is just a military and diplomatic union. Membership of NATO does nothing to bring together the working classes of member countries, only our states and our ruling classes. It solidifies and empowers them, not us. It does so at our expense and, even more, at the expense of the peoples who are subjected to their exploits abroad.
So, to confuse the two is to forget precisely those qualities of the EU that leave it open to transformation, and that make it worth remaining inside even for socialists.
Reviving socialist internationalism
The Labour leadership contest illustrates the prospects. No candidate is putting forward these kinds of arguments, or anything remotely pointing in this direction. Of the two left candidates, Long-Bailey and Lewis, neither looks likely to oppose participation in NATO. Indeed, Lewis previously defended it.
And though Lewis has spoken against nuclear weapons, Long-Bailey has been clear that she’s willing to use them. On top of her rhetoric about “progressive patriotism” and “Made In Britain” cuts against working-class and socialist internationalism.
A consistently internationalist, critical left is therefore going to have to regroup itself and build upwards from the grassroots of the left – from among those socialists who oppose Brexit, nationalism, imperialism and militarism.
This left needs to be absolutely unapologetic about rejecting nationalism and the very idea that there can be such a thing as a cross-class “national interest”. When this left opposes our ruling class’s alliance with NATO, it must be clear that NATO’s imperial rivals are no alternative.
Instead, it must champion the shared interests of workers and oppressed people irrespective of the borders drawn by our rulers.
It will clearly understand, relentlessly promote, and consistently put into practice the fundamental principle – that socialism is impossible until we fight for class and not country.
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