Editorial: UK to Ukraine and back again – conflict and class

For the left, the ‘test of war’ is said to be the ultimate test of their politics. This phraseology follows the collapse of socialist internationalism at the beginning of the First World War in 1914 when nearly all socialist parties in the countries of Europe dropped their commitment to defend the interests of their fellow workers in other countries. Instead, they supported their own ruling classes in what turned out to be the one of the bloodiest episodes of the capitalist imperialist epoch.

Today, radicals in these same countries and many others face the same test with Russian invasion of Ukraine – albeit it is for most a ‘cold’, rather than ‘hot’, test of war. They have exhibited a fault line. While all condemned the invasion of Ukraine by Russian military forces, there has been an often fierce and acrimonious debate on the issues of responsibility and blame (and their proportionality) in terms of NATO and Russia. Put simply, some that condemn Putin and Russia also argue that their actions – legitimately or otherwise – result from the expansion of NATO eastwards led by the United States and that this expansion is part of continuing imperialist rivalries between America and Russia. In other words, NATO is trying to encircle Russia in Eastern Europe so Russia’s response is understandable and explicable if still not justified.

There are, of course, other issues alongside and underlying this fault line. One is the continuing nature of the regime in Ukraine, with its banning of radical left (socialist and communist) parties in 2015 and now in 2022, the treatment of ethnic Russians in the Donbas, is failure to adhere to the Minsk agreements, and the domination of Ukrainian nationalists by far-right forces. Another is that – following Biden’s announcement that Putin must go in a clear declaration of intent for regime change and no matter how hard the challenge is – the only people that have the right to remove Putin are the people in Russia. Just as the ‘de-nazification of Ukraine’ that Putin claimed was one of his objectives is the responsibility of the Ukrainian people to deal with and not Putin and Russian forces. If Putin is removed as a result of the failure to achieve the invasion’s objectives, this will be welcomed by many but the further weakening of Russia as an imperial power will have geo-political consequences. Indeed, Russia’s diminishing military prowess means it has become more reliant upon, and closer to, China. The Russian economy is far, far smaller than those of the US and NATO countries combined, meaning that its military spending is much, much less. The starkness of this is highlighted by its GDP being the same size as that of Italy. We carry four articles on Ukraine in this issue, highlighting a number of the issues and perspectives.

None of these types of issues are entirely new for the left. We have seen them played out most recently in Syria, Turkey and Kurdistan and a bit further back in Iraq. But lamentably, Britain has its own special and specific contemporary contribution to make here. 2 April 2022 was the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of the Falklands/Malvinas war. The Argentinian junta was headed by General Galtieri as President who staged a coup to assume power and office. Galtieri, was authoritarian in the extreme, with the junta being a military dictatorship in essence, and increasingly unpopular as economic conditions worsened due to the introduction of what we now call neo-liberal measures. Relying on what turned out to be faulty intelligence from the US, Argentinian forces seized the Malvinas over which Argentina has a rightful claim, believing that Britain would not use military force to recapture the islands. Initially, the war was popular with Argentinians and shored up support for Galtieri. Upon its bloody recapture by Britain led by Thatcher, her popularity soared, ensuring a landslide Tory victory in the 1983 general election. The Falklands were a far-distant and age-old vestige of the British empire upon which it was said the sun never to set because it covered at its height a quarter of the world. Britain has no right to own and control a set of islands some 8,000 miles away. It was not sheep farming that interested the ruling class of Britain to support Thatcher and the Tories but the prospects of oil exploration in the south Atlantic as well as defending the reputation of British’s continuing imperialist desire. That said, the retaking militarily of the Malvinas by Argentinian forces against the wishes of the resident population also created problems in terms of the use of force and the rights of minorities.

The left in Britain was again somewhat split. Despite hating the Tories while also detesting Galtieri as some kind of proto-fascist, some reluctantly supported the British operation to recapture the islands. Some others called for the defeat of the British forces in what Lenin terms ‘revolutionary defeatism’ while others adopted a ‘plague on both your houses’ attitude. Such a situation has parallels with today. So, some tried to side with the ‘least worst’ option or support the defeat of the worst option. Some argued the main enemy is always at home. While many might rightly point out that whether the left supports this or that force makes little material difference to what is essentially a military affair often many thousands of miles way, it does matter politically. Politically, such decisions about whether such wars were imperialist adventures, whether the right of nations to self-determination is sacrosanct and the like do matter for the credibility of the left and whether the left can garner around itself popular support for its other policies. The outcome of the Falklands/Malvinas war was that Galtieri was deposed and liberal democracy restored in Argentina while the Tories restored their popularity and bedded in for the next ten plus years in office. What unites the outcomes in both countries was not only their subservience to US imperial interests but also their implementation of anti-worker and pro-capitalist neo-liberalism under Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Carlos Menem in Argentina.   

But when all is said and done, there is another test of war that socialists and the left must pass and it is ordinarily the more important one. This is the test of the class war, presently in its neo-liberal phase. Though shrouded in and crowded out by the language of the ‘cost of living crisis’, ‘bleak Friday’ etc, after a decade of austerity, workers – the working class – in Scotland and the rest of Britain are experiencing another form of more open of class warfare. Not only do the rich – the ruling class and their acolytes and lieutenants – keep getting richer while the rest get poorer but the rich can easily insulate themselves from any threats to their living standards. There is no ‘levelling up’ going on here. There’s not even any ‘levelling down’ of the rich but only further ‘levelling down’ for those at the bottom of society. The issues of unions fighting this war were covered extensively in the editorial of the last issue (March/April 2022).

In that editorial and of extra-workplace resistance it was stated: ‘The protests called by the People’s Assembly Scotland on 12 February in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow were not auspicious starts if their size is any barometer. We can’t console ourselves with ‘the weather wasn’t good’. On 2 April, the weather was much better – sunny if cold as opposed to rainy and dreich – but still the attendances were not any better. This was true of those protests south of the border and is especially noticeable after the price hike in domestic energy prices on 1 April. The left must ask itself why such protests are not – yet – connecting with the masses of people if we are to avoid a re-run of the failed resistance to the age of austerity of the 2010s following the global financial crisis. This is not to indulge in defeatism or miserablism but to ask ourselves to seriously self-reflect on what we are doing, how we are doing it and where we can improve. Calling on Rishi Sunak to ‘rethink’ is to suggest he is open to persuasion and rational argument, in other words, the force of argument. He is not. But he is open to the argument of force if we can create that force. Maybe, the sense of injustice caused by the ‘cost of living crisis’ can more easily be opened by using the likes of ‘partygate’ to frame the issue as ‘one law for the many and other for the few’.

Some of these issues are discussed in our podcast where Pat Kelly, chair of the Scottish Left Review editorial committee, interviews Roz Foyer, STUC general secretary. The podcast was published ahead of the STUC congress (25-27 April – see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xpq99GmQUtU). Indeed, if the unions and the left are to make progress, they will need to ‘take back control’ highlighting that Brexit under the Tories has not led to this change for the majority. Indeed, the Tory -determined Brexit is a further continuation the neo-liberal agenda in Britain, highlighting the significance of another key date in the history of these isles – ‘new’ Labour under Tony Blair won office 25 years ago on 1 May 1997. When Thatcher was asked in 2002 what her greatest achievement was, she said: ‘Tony Blair and ‘new’ Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds’. Then in 2013, Blair himself said: ‘I always thought my job was to build on some of the things she had done rather than reverse them’.

The theme of this issue of Scottish Left Review is building a new Scotland given the publication of the new Jimmy Reid Foundation book called A New Scotland: Building an Equal, Fair and Sustainable Society. We have a specially written introduction to the book and two abridged versions of the chapters. The book is for sale from Calton Books – see https://www.calton-books.co.uk/books/a-new-scotland-building-an-equal-fair-and-sustainable-society/

Scotrail – rightly waiting for another episode of Scotfail?

Some sections of the left seem to have a dose of myopia on Scotrail. Rightly, they have welcomed its return to the public sector but then hope against all the evidence that the SNP-dominated Scottish Government is going to run it in a social democratic way. This will only lead to a rude wake up call for them and the sowing of illusions in unfortunate others. Former (left-wing) Labour MSP, Neil Findlay, tweeted on 1 April 2022 when the return to public ownership happened: ‘Game, set and match to the trade union movement’. If that was true, the conditions under which Scotrail will operate would not include attacks on Scotrail workers’ terms and conditions nor the continuation of service cuts or the keeping of the Caledonian Sleeper service with privateer, Serco. Public ownership – in and of itself – is necessary but very far from sufficient – just look at the nationalisation of South Eastern Trains (2003–2006, Oct 2021-present), East Coast (2009–2015), London North Eastern Railway (2018–present), Northern Trains (2020–present). Here, state ownership was used and is being used to prop up and support the marketisation and privatisation of public transport. You don’t have to have a crystal ball to credibly state public ownership will not be manna from heaven under the SNP. The SNP Scottish Government’s handling of two state enterprises – Calmac’s new vessels from Ferguson Marine and Prestwick airport – already indicate there may well be trouble down the track for Scotrail. Let’s hope against hope that the date of the 1 April transition does not turn out to be an April Fool as this will only make the case for public ownership even harder to make.

Communist commemoration – Jimmy Reid on alienation

28 April 2022 was the 50th anniversary of Jimmy Reid’s rectorial address at the Bute Hall at the University of Glasgow (see https://reidfoundation.scot/2022/04/fifty-years-ago-today-jimmy-reid-made-his-the-rat-race-is-for-rats-speech/ for the full text). The knock-on impact of Covid restrictions meant the Jimmy Reid Foundation was unable to stage an event on that day to reprise the address. So, we reprint the opening paragraphs:

Alienation is the precise and correctly applied word for describing the major social problem in Britain today. People feel alienated by society. In some intellectual circles it is treated almost as a new phenomenon. It has, however, been with us for years. What I believe to be true is that today it is more widespread, more pervasive than ever before. Let me right at the outset define what I mean by alienation. It is the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.

Many may not have rationalised it. May not even understand, may not be able to articulate it. But they feel it. It therefore conditions and colours their social attitudes. Alienation expresses itself in different ways by different people. It is to be found in what our courts often describe as the criminal anti-social behaviour of a section of the community. It is expressed by those young people who want to opt out of society, by drop-outs, the so-called maladjusted, those who seek to escape permanently from the reality of society through intoxicants and narcotics. Of course, it would be wrong to say it was the sole reason for these things. But it is a much greater factor in all of them than is generally recognised.

Society and its prevailing sense of values leads to another form of alienation. It alienates some from humanity. It partially de-humanises some people, makes them insensitive, ruthless in their handling of fellow human beings, self-centred and grasping. The irony is, they are often considered normal and well adjusted. It is my sincere contention that anyone who can be totally adjusted to our society is in greater need of psychiatric analysis and treatment than anyone else.

Jimmy Reid Foundation is now operating as a charity

The Jimmy Reid Foundation is delighted to announce that, from 1 April 2022, it has begun operating as a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (SCIO). Previously, the Foundation and Scottish Left Review (which set up the Foundation) operated as a not-for-profit company called Left Review Scotland Ltd. This company is now in the process of being wound down. Our registration number with the Office of the Scottish Charities Regulator (OSCR) is SC051331. The purpose of the Jimmy Reid Foundation SCIO is the advancement of education, and it has two activities. The first is the Jimmy Reid Foundation, the left thinktank, and the second is the Scottish Left Review magazine. Although SCIO status was granted on 8 October 2021, the delay in beginning operating as a SCIO was due to the impact of COVID restrictions upon undertaking the necessary financial and organisational changes. While the websites of both the Jimmy Reid Foundation and the Scottish Left Review have been amended to reflect this new status, they will continue to operate as before – with the same addresses (web, physical and emails) but now under the direction of the mother organisation, the Jimmy Reid Foundation SCIO, which itself is directed by the five Trustees of the SCIO (Gregor Gall, Lynn Henderson, Pat Kelly, Lilian Macer and Bob Thomson). The ‘Object’ (i.e., purpose) of the JRF SCIO and its guiding principles can be found at https://reidfoundation.scot/2021/10/scottish-charitable-incorporated-status-scio-granted/ Those wishing to support the work of the Jimmy Reid Foundation SCIO financially can do so @ https://reidfoundation.scot/

Union leaders in Belarus jailed – support the campaign to free them

On 19 April, the Belarusian KGB arrested more than a dozen union activists, including almost all the union leaders. Among them were President of Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), Alexandr Yarashuk, its vice-president, Siarhei Antusevich, the head of the Free Belarusian Trade Union, Mikalaj Sharakh, and the head of Free Trade Union of Metal Workers (SPM), Aliaksandr Bukhvostau. For decades the independent union movement in Belarus has taken a strong stand against the dictatorial regime of Alexander Lukashenko. Despite a severe political crackdown, the BKDP has openly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanded the withdrawal of the Russian troops from the territory of Belarus. Global unions, the ILO, Amnesty International, and others have already condemned the arrests. Send your message of protest to the Belarusian government demanding the immediate release of the jailed union leaders: http://www.labourstart.org/go/belarus22

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