The British anti-war movement should be standing with anti-war protesters in Russia

The argument against Western imperialism can only be strengthened by a firm opposition to other imperialisms, argues Mike Marqusee
5 March 2014


An anti-war protester being arrested on Sunday in Moscow.

It really should be easy enough to condemn Russia's action in Ukraine while at the same time rejecting and campaigning against US-EU military intervention. Sadly, there are some in the anti-war movement who see this as an awkward proposition.

Russian imperialism is as unacceptable as US-EU imperialism. In this region it has a long and brutal history. The British anti-war movement should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with anti-war protesters in Russia, who face serious dangers, not equivocating about Putin.

The Maidan movement cannot be reduced to an imperialist plot. There were more than enough good reasons for people to be angry at the Yanukovich government; it didn't need 'outside agitators' of any kind. There were and are various elements within the Maidan movement, including, but certainly not restricted to, far-right nationalists. Their actions in recent weeks have been frightening and their role in the new government does indeed make a mockery of Western claims to be defending human rights.

Nonetheless, the demand of the Maidan for an end to corrupt oligarchic government was just and necessary. That claim is not vitiated by the fact that at the moment a particular branch of the ruling class (as venal as those they have replaced) has reaped the spoils. Like other protest movements in recent years, the Maidan's politics and ideology were and are ambiguous and inevitably still in formation.

Outside interference, from either Russia or the West, blocks or distorts this necessary process of political development. It solves nothing and generates only further problems.

The main enemy?

Those who want the anti-war movement in Britain to condemn Russia's actions have been reminded that 'the main enemy is at home'. The assumption seems to be that condemning Russia's crime will undermine opposition to war. But what will undermine us far more are unreal descriptions of events, evasive positions and 'special pleading'. If people are led to believe by our own behaviour that we are not really an anti-war movement but Russian apologists, 'the main enemy' will be strengthened.

It is perfectly possible to challenge Western imperialism without justifying the Russian variety. Making your own government the immediate focus of campaigning does not entail ignoring the rest of the picture. Yes, Western imperialism poses more dangers to more people, globally, but that does not make Russian imperialism any more acceptable or Ukraine's right to self-determination any less urgent.

We will be asked in public, by the public: 'What about Russia?' In this context, to answer simply that 'the main enemy is at home' will be seen as stonewalling.

There's a patronising notion that we can't do 'two things at the same time', that we can't handle complexity, that there must be a hierarchy of identifiable good guys and bad guys. The anti-war movement is seen as a fragile ensemble. Actually, it's more robust and more sophisticated than that.

The need for unity is cited as a reason not to dwell on Russian misbehaviour. But will evading or exonerating the Russian action really enhance unity in opposition to US-EU war-making? It's an approach that many are bound to find objectionable.

Western military intervention in Ukraine seems unlikely, but the rhetorical indignation of Western leaders plays an insidious role: part of a long-term effort to repair an imperial ideology discredited by Afghanistan and Iraq. When liberals lament the 'impotence' of the West, they're setting the stage for a reassertion of Western 'masculinity' - as and when convenient. Mirroring Western rationales, Moscow characterises its military intervention as a humanitarian mission of protection. At this moment, in relation to Ukraine, imperial hypocrisies, Western and Russian, seem boundless.

We won't be able to offer an alternative to this hall of mirrors by matching one double standard with another. It's always a corrupting practice, as a left wing version of realpolitik takes the place of a politics of solidarity.

The argument against Western imperialism can only be strengthened by a firm opposition to other imperialisms. This is a common human cause, isn't it?

Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


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Michael Calderbank 6 March 2014, 11.07


You write “The Maidan movement cannot be reduced to an imperialist plot.” – this is true. Obviously the protest movement was not whipped up from nowhere by outside agitators – genuine grievances undoubtedly existed. However, it’s also true that extremely powerful and well-funded vested interests are able to work up particular grievances by ideologically constructing/situating a sizeable minority group as the bearers of the democratic consience of the nation, the voice of the streets etc. It’s not a question of simply opposing direct US/EU military intervention – the Maidan movement is itself partly the product of a deliberate strategy of forces to destabilise the pro-Russian oligarchy.

Don’t disagree with the wider point that we should oppose Russian imperialism in its military incursions.

Tony Walker 7 March 2014, 08.37

@Tom Delargy,

Tom, it is quite possible, in fact extremely easy to oppose both US (including EU &UK) and Russian Imperialism. I joined the SWP in 1986 when its main principle and slogan was, “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”. It was spot on politically when I joined in 1986, it’s still spot on now. I have lived by and argued that slogan and politics since I joined – and in fact agreed with the slogan before I first heard it. Not because, “the main enemy is at home”, but because the enemy is Imperialism – a particularly nasty form of capitalism. Capitalism is the enemy of the working class, wherever the working class is.

The key question about Russian Imperialism over the last two months – however much it is involved in organising, provoking or supporting the ‘Maiden movement’ – is; why and how has Russian Imperialism changed, and to such an extent that the previously ‘bad’ Russian Imperialism has changed to a ‘nice’ Russian Imperialism? Essentially when did Russian Imperialism reform to become a ‘nice ‘Imperialism? Or is it the case that the recent outbreak of ‘nice’ Russian Imperialism has exposed the fundamental error underpinning large sections of the left and their analysis of capitalism and exactly what socialism is and how to fight for it?

I’ve not changed my politics; Russian Imperialism has not changed its behaviour. It’s time that the sections of the left that capitulate to supporting Imperialist sections of capitalism – that destroy the lives of working class people on a systematic, daily basis (and occasionally those of other countries by occupation)- rather than the interests of the (world) working class woke up. You don’t fight homophobia with homophobia. You don’t fight racism with racism. You don’t fight sexism with sexism. You don’t fight Imperialism with Imperialism. You don’t fight capitalism with capitalism. You fight capitalism with Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism.

prianikoff 7 March 2014, 10.57

The biggest criticism that can be levelled against Putin’s policy is that it’s based on Russian nationalism. This leads to a political dynamic in which the main objective becomes secession of areas of Ukraine with Russian speaking majorities.
These will then be encouraged to vote for unification with the Russian Federation.
In this respect, Putin’s policy is similar to Milosevic’s, during the Yugoslav Wars.

Russia has started to backtrack on its earlier promise to defend the integrity of Ukraine, which was based on a strictly legalistic approach to the crisis.
It was clear that agreements with Ukrainian opposition leaders, supported by NATO and the EU were worthless.

Having offered Viktor Yanukovych refuge, Russia realised he was a busted flush.
So it moved towards supporting secessionist regional governments in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Russian speakers are predominant in the large cities in Eastern Ukraine, not because of “imperialism”, but because of the development of large scale industries from the 19th century onwards. These workers have good reasons to fear Ukrainian accession to the EU, because it will mean mass austerity and the end of their industries.

Russian speakers were also alarmed when the new Ukrainian Rada, as one of its first measures, tried to end the status of Russian as an official language. This measure was not signed by the President on EU advice. But what guarantees do they have that the rightists won’t force it through at a later date?

Nor is there anything inherently “imperialist” about the use of democratic referenda to settle national disputes. (although its use in Crimea under the current circumstances is obviously a political manouevre).

NATO is aggressively trying to expand into the Ukraine, having already absorbed Poland and the Baltic States. It has threatened to base missile defence shields in these countries and is now sending F15’s to the Baltic.
Russia’s actions have mainly been defensive and ad-hoc.

Under these circumstances, it’s not particuarly useful to refer to “Russian Imperialism”. This approach conflates Tsarist policy towards Ukraine with Stalin’s, in one long chain of “Imperialism”.
It covers up for right-wing Ukrainian nationalism, ignores the Internationalism of the Russian revolution and abdicates responsibility from the task of uniting the working class across national and linguistic boundaries.

Fighting for an Independent Socialist Ukraine leads away from this defensive dead-end, towards a much bigger goal- the overthrow of the Interim Ukrainian Government – a coalition of fascists, pro-EU and pro-Nato stooges which is a threat to the peace of Europe.

Campaigners against Austerity and the British anti-war movement should be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those Ukrainians who want to bring this government down.

rich 16 March 2014, 02.12

The british left seems to have no understanding about the Ukrainian situation whatsoever. The russians and Ukrainians are one people who share a common history and culture. The bandera fascists represent a small minority in the far west of the country. They have been magnified by the west they do not represent the majority view in any way.
The name Ukraine is a relatively recent word for the country which was known previously as little Russia and along with white Russia (Belarus) are all equally rus people. The west has spent the last twenty years trying to split thr rus people.What has been overlooked is the fact that 32 million rus people died fighting the Nazis.If it wasn’t for this blood that was shed we in Britain would almost certainly be speaking german of that their is no doubt.
A brit calling a Russian an imperialist is such an insult to those that died that maybe you deserve to be enslaved by your paedophilic jimmy saville royal demon worshiping elite. The bear is awake and walks out from its slumber with the tiger and rest of the free world. Beware revolt wake up your country is run by paedophliles and you call the russains imperialist the british left is defunct you guys make me sick.

mike 26 March 2014, 22.02

Prianikoff is right. This is about Russia’s response to a long-standing attempt by NATO to bring the Ukraine into it’s fold. I hate Putin as much as the next person but just because it’s Putin doesn’t make Russia’s response wrong. The sheer hypocrisy of the US, Britain and the EU on this is astonishing. All this while Turkey, a fully-fledged member of NATO and associate member of the EU continues to illegally occupy another EU country, Cyprus!

Will Podmore 31 March 2014, 14.56

The EU is prodding a fascist-led Ukraine into war against Russia. The EU and the US government championed the pro-EU coup in Ukraine which ousted the elected government by force. The fascist coup leaders overthrew the elected government because it wasn’t pro-EU enough.
The US government even said who they wanted to be Ukraine’s next Prime Minister.
On the ground, the neo-Nazi Social-National Party of Ukraine (subsequently rebranded Svoboda – freedom!) led the coup. It now has five ministerial posts. Members of Svoboda and the Right Sector control the armed forces, the police, economic affairs and national security.
The coup leaders want Ukraine to join the EU and NATO. This would breach the country’s constitution, which lays down a policy of neutrality or non-bloc status. Every poll shows that the majority of Ukrainians do not want to join NATO.
Nigel Farage said, “We should hang our heads in shame. The British government has actually geed up the EU to pursue effectively an imperialist, expansionist – and even Mr Barroso, the commission president, once said we are building an empire. We have given a false series of hopes to a group of people in the western Ukraine. So geed up were they that they actually toppled their own elected leader. That provoked Mr Putin. I think the EU frankly does have blood on its hands in the Ukraine.”
Like him or not, he was speaking the truth.
Clegg responded: “I was extraordinarily surprised, if not shocked, that he agrees with Vladimir Putin.”
The good little warmonger Clegg didn’t challenge Farage’s facts, just smeared him as siding with Putin.
Opponents of war are always smeared as ‘apologists’ for the official enemy – ‘pro-Boers’, ‘pro-Germans’, ‘fellow-travellers’, ‘useful idots’. To fear this so much that you parrot the warmongers at home is to strengthen the warmongers. Mike Marqusee and SWPer Tony Walker push the NATO line, which would, if pursued, take us to war.

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